ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO/AP) – The body of a missing fourth-grader has been recovered following Wednesday’s landslide in St. Paul that trapped four children who were on a field trip near the Mississippi River bluffs.
The boy was identified as 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana, authorities confirmed late Thursday morning.
The boy’s uncle, Mohamed Bah, described the fourth-grader as “very friendly” and having been filled with excitement to go on the field trip. On Thursday afternoon, mourners at the boy’s Minneapolis home read from a card Fofana had recently written his mother. In it, the boy praised his mom’s cooking and sense of humor. “I love it when you make chicken with noodles,” the card read. It ended with: “I love you, Mom.”
While deeply saddened, the family blames no one.
“We believe as Muslims,” Bah said, “from God we came and from God we return. So, what happened here is natural. Can’t blame anybody.”
The landslide happened early Wednesday afternoon at Lilydale Park. Authorities said another boy died and two others were injured when it happened. The other boy who died has been identified as 9-year-old Haysem Sani.
The four children from Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park were walking together, searching for fossils, when a hillside gave way. They were swept into a hole, which then filled with water.
“It was about four-to-five feet of soil and rock that had encased the children,” said St. Paul Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith.
Rescue crews rushed to the scene, and they were able to pull one boy out immediately. A second had water up to his waist, and it took an hour to pull him out.
Three children were taken to Regions Hospital on Wednesday, where Sani was pronounced dead. One child with minor injuries was treated and released, and the other child remained in serious condition Thursday, Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said.
“My heart aches for the families and friends of children affected by this tragic incident. Grateful for our courageous first responders,” tweeted St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
When emergency crews got to the scene Wednesday afternoon, many rushed straight down the hill and started digging with their bare hands. As the recovery effort continued at the park, parents rushed to the elementary school. Some got there before their children returned from the field trip.
WCCO heard from one child who nearly fell in himself. The boy said he was right in the area where the four children had the ground taken out from under them, but he was able to catch himself and avoid sliding down the hill. The boy was shaken after the tragedy, but OK.
School resumed as normal Thursday at Peter Hobart Elementary School, and grief counselors were on hand. On Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton will attend a gathering at the school to honor the young victims.
“The loss of a child’s life is the greatest fear a parent could have. During this time of grieving and sadness, I extend my deepest sympathies to all of the students, parents, and educators at St. Louis Park’s Peter Hobart Elementary School,” said congresswoman Betty McCollum in a written statement. “The St. Paul Fire Department and the brave first-responders — who put their own lives in danger to search for survivors — have the gratitude of our entire community. My prayers are with all those involved in this devastating accident.”
At a briefing Thursday afternoon, first responders reiterated just how dangerous and precarious the scene was. They said they dealt with a 30-foot wall of exposed soil, which was collapsing down onto them and the area where the recovery was taking place. Crews were able to find Fofana’s body rather quickly that morning because all the water in the hole had drained away. After the boy was located, it took crews about 45 minutes to remove the rubble and sand from on top of him, Smith said. Areas of the park are now fenced off, and geologists are on the scene, investigating the landslide, determining if park activity is safe to resume.
Lilydale Regional Park is a popular destination for school field trips because of the numerous fossils embedded in that part of the Mississippi River bluffs. Partly for safety reasons, the city requires permits for fossil-hunting at the park, and requires applicants to sign a waiver releasing the city from any liability for injuries or property damage.
The park department’s permit web site and the application form both specifically state that “some of the conditions and locations within the Lilydale Regional Park area are hazardous to persons or property” and that park users must assume liability for any injuries or claims that might arise “due to its unsafe conditions.”
Citizens Independent Bank has set up a fund to benefit those affected by Wednesday’s landslide. Donations to “Peter Hobart Childrens Fund” will be accepted at the following locations:
St Louis Park
5000 West 36th St.
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
3700 West Broadway
Robbinsdale, MN 55422
10901 Excelsior Blvd.
Hopkins, MN 55343
15650 36th Ave. North
Plymouth, MN 55446
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