Mother warns of swimming pool risks

At vigil for dead son, she tells kids to avoid illegal late-night dips

June 18, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Zerline A. Hughes | Peter Hermann and Zerline A. Hughes,SUN STAFF

Scaling or cutting through chain-link fences to take an after-hours dip in Baltimore's 24 public swimming pools has gotten so common that it has a name. Youngsters call it "pool hopping."

But what may be thought of as a youthful escapade ended in death this week, when Canvas Goods, 15, slipped under a fence at the Patterson Park pool, where he drowned in 9 feet of water just blocks from his East Baltimore Street home.

His death has become a reminder that breaking into city pools is not just illegal -- police arrested 120 trespassers last year -- but dangerous. Canvas did not know how to swim.

"Leave the fence alone. Stay away," warned Canvas' mother, Sandra Goods, 42, who spoke at a pool-side vigil in memory of her son Wednesday night attended by dozens of children. "It could have been any one of you. There's a lesson in there for all of you to learn."

City pools open at noon tomorrow. All summer, city Department of Recreation and Parks officials, along with police officers, go on "pool patrols" to check fences and catch trespassers at night.

Wednesday night, after the vigil ended, recreation and parks Director Thomas V. Overton spotted 15 to 18 youngsters swimming at the Greater Model Park pool in West Baltimore. He said most scattered by the time police officers pulled up, but they arrested a 17-year-old whom they charged as a juvenile with trespassing.

"We've taken a number of steps to try to alert young people about not going into the pools after hours," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday at his weekly news conference. "Going to pools after hours can be extremely dangerous. We hope that the young man's death will not be in vain."

It is a problem not confined to the city. Pool managers across the region have reported hiring guards, erecting higher fences and even installing underwater sonar systems to alert police to illicit nighttime swimming.

`Parents shrug it off'

Bob Bellamy, director of operations for the Columbia Association in Howard County, said break-ins at the private group's 23 pools are common. "We catch people every summer," he said, adding that Howard County police arrest and charge trespassers.

"It's a very serious offense," Bellamy said. "Parents don't look at it like that. They shrug it off."

Some of Baltimore County's private swim clubs had similar break-in problems.

In Harford County, the pool manager at the Fountain Green Swim Club in Bel Air, Ted Smith, said he bluffs, telling children that he puts chemicals into the water at night: "We do all that we can to discourage it."

It's not just kids out for a late-night dip that concerns officials.

A week after Baltimore pools opened last year, vandals cut the fence and dumped copy-machine toner into the Olympic-size Patterson Park pool, forcing officials to close it during a weekend when temperatures soared into the upper 90s.

A day later, a gunman opened fire at a pool at Liberty Recreation Center in Northwest Baltimore, wounding three people who had broken in for a late-night swim.

Outside Patterson Park this week, children playing near the pool said they eagerly awaited its opening. But Canvas' death in the deep end of the largest of the park's three pools, known as the Tank, had left an impression.

"It made me scared," said Sean Hott, 10. "If they don't know how to swim, they shouldn't get in the Tank. I don't swim in the Tank because I'm scared I might drown."

Brothers Domeneke, 12, and Brandon Hill, 10, were at Patterson Park on Monday evening when Canvas and his friends slipped under a broken section of chain-link fence.

"Everyone asked if we knew how to swim," Brandon said, adding that he and his brother nodded yes. "We were on the swings, so they let us through the gate."

Baltimore police said the youths took turns jumping into the water. Canvas climbed partway up a lifeguard stand and jumped off, which is not allowed even when the pool is open, according to a police report. Detective Enrique G. Villareal of the homicide unit said Canvas' friends tried to talk him out of going into the water.

"One of his friends said, `What are you doing up there? You don't know how to swim,' " Villareal said. Canvas "said that he could float to the top and from there he could make it to the side."

When he didn't surface, his friends dived in after him. "We got under him and pushed his legs up and some other people helped him get out," Domeneke said. "He was breathing 'cause you could see his stomach going up and down. Then he just went out."

`It's tragic'

Canvas' mother spoke on a radio station Wednesday and said she believed her son had been pushed into the pool. She declined to talk to a Sun reporter at the vigil. Police said they are convinced Canvas went in on his own.

"Everyone said he climbed up the ladder and jumped into the water," said Detective Clifton F. Macer of the homicide unit. "It's tragic."

Canvas' friends remembered a wiry Patterson High School student with a mischievous grin. He was an active member at the Southeast Teen Center, an outreach program. He planted trees on the Broadway median, helped plant a church garden and set up a picnic for younger children.

A teen center worker, Cinder Hypki, 41, composed a poem and read it at the vigil under a persistent drizzle.

There's this hole in the fence

Where you slipped through

To dip into the water of this big old pool.

Now there's this hole in our world

Where you slipped through.

Hypki said Canvas had learned a great deal at the teen center. "He made a wrong choice" Monday night, she said. "That's sad. He was learning to make good, healthy choices."

Sun staff writers Rafael Alvarez and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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