Four people drowned in a large downtown fountain, one of them an 8-year-old girl and three others, including her father and brother, who died while trying to rescue her.
About 2,000 people gathered for a prayer vigil Thursday morning, a day after the deaths of the four, who were visiting from Chicago to attend a Sunday school convention.
“Today our city extends our wings to enfold and comfort you,” Mayor Mike Moncrief told the crowd, many of whom held hands and wiped away tears.
The Rev. Gerald Dew, pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, said the man and children had gone to the Fort Worth Water Gardens to play because the pool at their nearby hotel was closed.
The 9-foot-deep pool, called the Active Pool, collects water from several artificial waterfalls. At the bottom, a powerful pump pulls the water through a drain so it can be recirculated, fire officials said.
Dew identified those who drowned Wednesday as Myron Dukes, 35; his daughter Lauren, 8; his son Christopher, 13; and Juantrice Deadmon, 11, who was not related to the other three.
Witness accounts varied on what happened. Apparently, Lauren Dukes jumped or slipped into the water and Deadmon fell in when she tried to reach in and help her. Lauren’s father and brother then jumped in to try to save the girls.
Police officer Tony Moldanado, one of the first rescuers at the scene, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that when he jumped in, the suction “literally sucked the socks off my feet.”
One witness, Christian Tillis, 14, said he saw the girls slip into the water and tried to help.
“I dived in after them. I felt a little-bitty hand, but it slipped out,” he said. “And then I had to get out because I couldn’t breathe.”
'No swimming' signs posted
Dot Kent, a spokeswoman for the city of Fort Worth, said “no swimming” signs are posted in the park and near the pool. She said she understood that the little girls had on swimsuits when their bodies were recovered.
A pump at the bottom of the pool that pulls water to a waterfall apparently created a suction that made rescues difficult, Fire Department spokesman Lt. Kent Worley said.
“A young person would not have the strength or the knowledge of how to get away from it,” he said.
Jesse Spann, one of the church’s deacons, said there are no barriers around the area and that steps lead down to the swirling pool. “As a child, when you see a waterfall, you think you can go play and swim there,” he said.
All four victims were in town for the five-day National Baptist Sunday School convention. At the hotel, church members gathered in a conference room to hug, cry and pray. Gospel hymns played on a tape recorder.
Worley said the Water Gardens would remain closed until police finish investigating the drownings. A memorial ceremony was planned for Thursday at the park.
No previous deaths in 30 years
Designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the gardens are free to enter and a common refuge from hot Texas days. Each minute, 19,000 gallons of water courses through the garden, according to the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Center.
Before Wednesday, the park’s most serious accident was in 1991, when an 80-foot light pole fell and killed two people. The city has paid thousands of dollars in claims to visitors injured in falls, the Star-Telegram reported.
Standing before his teary-eyed church members in the hotel conference room, Dew struggled to find the words that would console his flock following the tragedy.
“The word that God told me to tell them was that he’s still in charge and he’s still in control, and that we only see the beginning, but God sees the beginning and the end, so we have to just hope in him,” Dew said.