5-year-old drowns at Memorial Park Natatorium


Witnesses were upset Saturday afternoon in the wake of a 5-year-old girl who was drowning and pulled from the outside pool of Jasper's Memorial Park Natatorium, but who later was pronounced dead. 

The identity of the young girl was not released when Jasper Mayor David O'Mary, Police Chief J.C. Poe and Fire Chief David Clark spoke to reporters at a 7:15 p.m. press conference at the police station, four hours after the incident began. 

However, AL.com later identified the girl as Faithlynn Blankenship through a GoFundMe account established to pay for her burial expenses. O'Mary referred twice to her first name during the press conference. 

Poe said he would leave the release of the name to Coroner Joey Vick, who he said came out to the hospital. "It was a 5-year-old girl," he said. 

Saturday afternoon, a number of people, including Jasper police officers and investigators, as well as O'Mary, were seen entering the Natatorium, which was closed down at mid-afternoon. People stopped in the parking lot in their cars to ask what was going on, but received no answers. 

Jasper police were not commenting on the incident late in the afternoon. However, witnesses, breaking down at sorrow at times, told what they witnessed. 

"It's a sad situation that we're here for tonight. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to this young little girl's parents and family members," Poe said 

Poe said at 2:59 p.m. Saturday, Walker County E-911 was notified of a possible drowning victim at the Natatorium. 

"At 3:02 p.m., three minutes later, our first police officer arrived. At 3:03 p.m., Jasper Fire Department arrived on the scene and took over the patient care "started by people there at the Natatorium and lifeguards," he said.

Once Regional Paramedical Services arrived, the patient was transported to the emergency room at Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper, he said. 

"The ER doctors continued life-saving procedures until they determined there was nothing further that could be done to revive the child," Poe said. 

Poe said at the time of the incident, eight lifeguards were on duty at the Natatorium, three of whom were working supervisors. He said the city-paid lifeguards are state certified, including with CPR techniques.

"The child was brought to the pool by a family member and remained there with her," he said. 

Under state law, Poe said that anytime anyone dies under the age of 18, unless they are terminally ill and being seen by a physician, an autopsy has to be performed. Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair has approved to do one, and one has been requested. Poe said that autopsy will be performed on the child, as standard procedure.

"We hate this has happened. It is a tragedy for any death not expected," Poe said, "but particularly when a child has been involved." 

Poe said the case is still being investigated under normal procedures, and statements are still being taken from those at the pool at the time. Once the investigation is completed, "if there is anything remarkable that needs to be brought to (the media's) attention, we will do so at that time." He said the investigation may be completed by this afternoon (Sunday) or mid-day Monday. 

O'Mary said, "To the family, our hearts our heavy. You carry a heavy burden that I can't understand because I haven't been where you are at." 

He asked the community to say prayers for the family for the days ahead. 

"We live in a world filled with many bad things, mean people," he said. "But we still have good Samaritans." He said while he did not known their names, he wanted to thank those who came to the aide of the girl and worked frantically to save her. 

One Birmingham reporter noted that witnesses indicated the lifeguards didn't seem to be prepared for an event like this and might need more training. "It was like they just froze," they said. Witnesses also told the Daily Mountain Eagle the same viewpoint at the Natatorium. 

"Anytime we have a situation of this nature, we go back and the city, they review training, anything they can do, anything that could be done differently trainingwise or anything like that," Poe said. "So that is something that is certainly going to be looked at." He said under O'Mary, when children are involved in a situation, "there is no expense spared when children are involved in it. With public safety, with myself and the fire chief, if we have something we desperately need that is important to public safety, the issue is addressed and taken care of." 

"I think they did an outstanding job, from what my investigators have reported back to me at this time," he said. Poe said he has not heard any reports that the people didn't see the girl in trouble. "She was observed and brought out of the water," he said. 

"From what I understand, we had extremely experienced people on the scene. We had a nurse with many years of experience in working with people in that condition. We had a lifeguard from another state who is a veteran. They stepped in also. So I think probably the most experienced people that were there were working on this child, trying to revive her," Poe said. 

Poe declined to say at this time if video surveillance footage could be viewed to review the events. 

Asked how the family was faring that night, Poe said, "Terribly. Wouldn't you?" 

Sarah Watkins of Oakman, still emotional after the experience, said that afternoon in the parking lot Natatorium she pulled the girl out of the facility's outdoor pool in the back.   

"I knew what I was doing. I grabbed her and pulled her out. But it was all pretty much patrons doing CPR, doing most of the initial effort," Watkins said, noting she was a patron herself. "I just happened to know what I was doing." 

Asked if if the victim was a young girl, Watkins broke down in tears and said, "She was very young. She was very young." 

Anthony McEntyre and Dewonica Samuels, both of Jasper, were in a car in the Natatorium's parking lot late in the afternoon, as others were dealing with the situation inside. 

Samuels said she and McEntyre were taking photos on the other side of the pool, and they heard yelling. They thought someone was arguing at first and they walked up to eventually find people trying to save the child. 

McEntyre said he recalled one woman started giving CPR, and then the woman came in to give her a break, helping with CPR. Then the officers arrived. He pointed out another man who was trying to do mouth-to-mouth.  

Samuels said that man was Watkins' father. The man, who came over to briefly talk to Samuels and McEntyre, and shake their hand before leaving, confirmed he was Watkins' father and that she dove in.  

"I'm never going to forget it," he said emotionally, saying he can still see her in his mind. He said Samuels and McEngyre did a great job in helping as well. 

"It's a kid, man. I can't get over it," he said.