STILLWATER, Minn. (WCCO) — A Twin Cities lake is closed Wednesday while officials investigate a boy’s death. The Health Department says he likely died from a rare brain infection called amoebic meningitis.
Nine-year-old Jack Ariola-Erenberg had been swimming at Lily Lake in Stillwater. That’s the same lake where a 7-year-old girl had been swimming before she died two years ago. Annie Bahneman’s family said she was learning how to do handstands in the water and they believe that’s how she was exposed to the ameoba.
“The only way is, water gets forced up the nose with the amoeba and actually crawls up your olfactory nerve into your brain,” said Dr. Richard Danila, with the Minnesota Department of Health.
Jack’s uncle, Matt Ariola, said his nephew loved to swim.
“Very happy, energetic boy, loved the outdoors, loved playing in the water all the time,” he said.
Jack had recently gone swimming in Lily Lake and then suddenly got sick when his family went on a camping trip up north over the weekend. The doctors thought he had the flu, but he kept getting worse — within two days, he was gone.
“It’s been so hard,” Matt Ariola said. “You want to think it’s a dream, it’s impossible to happen, it happened so quick.”
Matt said the family is devastated.
“He was 9 years old, you know,” he said. “No one should die that soon. No parent should ever have to bury their child. It’s a sad, sad deal.”
Jack would have started 4th grade this fall. He loved animals, wrestling and played hockey and football. Mike Schurrer’s sons played hockey in Forest Lake with Jack. They got a heartbreaking e-mail from Jack’s dad earlier this week.
“He said, ‘I lost my best friend today,’ that made me want to cry,” Schurrer said.
Schurrer said Jack was supposed to be on the ice tonight for fall tryouts. His teammates, friends and family are at a loss for how this happened.
“He wanted to play goalie and try out the gear, so we got him fitted up,” said hockey mom Ann Heinsch.
While most kids fear the position, Jack stepped up to play goalie. The parents who watched Jack on the ice say that spoke to his courage.
Jack’s hockey coach at FLAAA Sports Center in Forest Lake Jeremy Bottem remembers Jack as a team player with a lot of friends and a contagious laugh.
Sudden and unexpected, parents say they can’t even begin to imagine what Jack’s parents are facing.
“I know, now that it’s happened a second time, parents are more concerned,” Heinsch said. “It’s hard because we live in Minnesota, that’s what we do in the summer, we go in the lake and we swim.”
Parents in Stillwater are concerned and want to know if the water is safe. However, officials aren’t able to confirm that yet.
The lake is quite popular in the summers, has a public beach and is even used for a youth sports camp that’s next door.
The city is warning residents about the potential health threat and asking them to stay out of the water.
If it’s confirmed, it would be the second such case at Lily Lake and the second ever in Minnesota. Bahneman was the first case — she died in 2010.
“That was the northern most case by at least 500 miles,” Danila said.
After two cases, parents aren’t taking any chances.
City officials say they closed the lake as a precaution and want to remind people that it hasn’t been confirmed that Ariola-Erenberg died from swimming in Lily Lake. They’re even calling his death a “weird fluke.”
Tests of other lakes to confirm if the amoeba came from Lily Lake are being rushed to the Centers for Disease Control overnight. The results could be released as early as Thursday. Once those results are released and the boy’s cause of death has been confirmed, that will determine how long the lake will be closed.
A fund has been set up for Jack’s family for medical and funeral expenses. You can make a donation at any Central Bank in his name. His hockey team is also planning to do something special in Jack’s memory — and to help his family.