Joey Keillor knew something was wrong Saturday evening as he was paddling back to shore on Cascade Lake.
He didn’t know it at the time, but 7-year-old Deon McBride, of Chicago, had disappeared under the water.
Keillor and a friend had been paddleboarding at the lake in Northwest Rochester. They reached shore at the same time the Rochester Fire Department arrived on the scene.
A few minutes later, Keillor and more than two dozen other people formed a line parallel to the beach shore, locked arms, and waded into the water to recover the boy.
Once the line was in water about chest deep, a man to Keillor’s right called out, “I got him,” pulled the boy out of the water, and sprinted to shore with him, where paramedics performed CPR.
They were unable to revive the boy.
Despite being part of the effort, Keillor said he wished he had acted faster and organized the line as soon as he got to shore. It took about five minutes for firefighters to mobilize people in the effort and another five minutes of searching before they found him, Keillor guessed.
“Ten minutes is a long time to be under water,” he said. “I feel bad I didn’t act on my instinct to do that sooner.”
Keillor, a father of two, said the tactic is something he kept in the back of his head when his kids were younger and he would take them swimming at White Water State Park.
“It can happen so quickly,” he said. “There aren’t any fireworks — they just go under.”
Keillor said parents need to keep an “eagle eye” on their kids, especially when they're swimming at a beach with no lifeguards.
The city beaches in Rochester aren’t staffed with lifeguards.
More than two weeks before Deon drowned at Cascade Lake, Rochester City council member Shaun Palmer wrote a letter to the Rochester Parks and Recreation Board urging them to open the city pools for swimming and swim lessons.
Palmer argued that city pools are better equipped to control crowds, enforce safe behavior, and provide a place to give children swimming lessons.
Palmer has been a Red Cross-certified lifeguard and lifeguard trainer for more than 20 years, working at the YMCA pool and camps. He said pools offer safer environments and promote water safety. As summer peaks, people will still want to swim, and the only public options in Rochester are the beaches.
“Opening the beaches without lifeguards is not safe,” Palmer said. “Teaching water safety is fundamental to what the park board should be doing.”
Under Minnesota law, it’s up to cities to decide whether to staff public swimming areas with lifeguards. State law also protects cities from most liabilities from harm to people using public parks and recreation areas, said Chris Smith, risk-management attorney at the League of Minnesota Cities.
Employing lifeguards in swimming areas doesn’t automatically reduce the risk of liability to a city, he added.
In fact, having a lifeguard could leave a city more open to liability under circumstances in which the lifeguard is found to be negligent or fail to enforce rules, according to the LMC’s Parks and Recreation Loss Control Guide.
“However, I don’t think we would ever discourage a city from having lifeguards,” Smith said.
With no natural lakes in Olmsted County and municipal pools closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Cascade Lake and Foster-Arend are currently the only public swimming areas open to swimmers.
Foster-Arend has a dubious history, with seven drownings there from 1991 through 2007. However, all but one incident involved people swimming outside the designated swimming area.
Palmer said this past weekend’s death and the history at Foster-Arend are reasons to open municipal pools, adding that no drownings have occurred at city pools in that same time period.
“I think it’s a decision the park board should revisit,” he said.