Lilydale Park landslide was unpredictable, investigation finds - KMSP-TV

Lilydale Park landslide was unpredictable, investigation concludes

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Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Fire Department Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Fire Department
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ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) -

Two independent investigations into the Lilydale Regional Park landslide that killed two fourth grade students last May found the city was aware of soil erosion but didn't know it posed safety risks at the fossil hunting grounds.

The results of the probes were presented Thursday morning by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Hamline University Law School Dean Don Lewis and Northern Technologies senior engineer Ryan Benson.

"We have concluded that the city did not know that soil erosion posed a threat to the safety of visitors to the fossil grounds," Lewis summarized.

Lewis said the investigation's findings show the deadly landslide, which killed fourth graders Mohammed Fofana and Haysem Sani, was unpredictable.

The investigation concluded city managers had "substantial knowledge of soil erosion," but "there was no evidence of actual knowledge of unstable bluffs that posed risks to the safety of visitors."

MAY 22 LANDSLIDE

Nearly 50 fourth-grade students from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park were on a field trip searching for fossils on May 22 when the muddy soil enclosed upon them. Crews rescued two injured students and located 9-year-old Sani's body after he had been buried for over an hour.

The next morning, crews recovered the body of 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana, who had been missing all night after the disaster. Firefighters said he was about four feet away from Sani.

FIELD TRIPS STILL SUSPENDED

Mayor Coleman said all school group permits to Lilydale Park will remain suspended because there is no way to make the park perfectly safe.

EROSION AT LILYDALE

A previous FOX 9 report found the St. Paul parks department was warned about erosion problems at Lilydale Regional Park four years ago.

The warning came in a management plan for the park written by an environmental firm. Since then, there was another landslide that park advocates say should have served as a warning sign.

"This park really has been neglected for about 30 years or so," said Jon Kerr, head of the Friends of Lilydale Park.

Yet, although the independent reports confirmed slope failures and soil erosion was reported in the months prior to the slide, the incidents "were considered natural occurrences."

The newly-released reports also revealed that city leaders did know of a large landslide that occurred in 2009 just 50 yards away from the fatal slide; however, despite pictures that were posted online, no one saw it happen and no one was hurt. The city did not view the incident as a threat to people walking on park paths. Rather, they were focused on the threat to Pickerel Lake and the Mississippi River in terms of mud and sand runoff.

Soil engineers are launched a study of the slope immediately after the students were killed, and their analysis concluded that additional ground water accumulation and a loss of shear strength within the sand profile was the cause.

"There was no way to predict with any high level of accuracy where in the park, the magnitude of the slide or the exact timing of that slide," Benson said.

The only thing investigators could say with certainty is that another landslide will happen again, which is why Lilydale Park remains closed to hikers while the city creates a safety plan.

Meanwhile, Kerr worries the city may put too many restrictions on what he sees as a wild and natural park, adding that he has long believed the city should have known the bluffs could be dangerous during heavy spring rains. 

"We've taken hundreds of fossil groups into that area and not had incidents, but you do need some common sense. You do need some limits, and you do need to look at warning signs that you have when things need to be addressed," he said.

Coleman said he hopes to reopen the park once safety protocols are developed; however, he warned that may not happen this year.

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