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Grand Forks rescuer of girl in pool describes 'emotional' experience

GRAND FORKS -- It started with a scream. Josh Erickson had just finished swimming with his children on Sunday evening when he heard it. He whirled out to his third-floor balcony at Forest Park apartments and saw a knot of kids surrounding a 13-ye...

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Melissa Buckner stands at the apartment balcony where she saw emergency personnel respond to reports that a young girl had been found unconscious and unbreathing at her apartment complex's pool. (Sam Easter/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS -- It started with a scream.

Josh Erickson had just finished swimming with his children on Sunday evening when he heard it. He whirled out to his third-floor balcony at Forest Park apartments and saw a knot of kids surrounding a 13-year-old girl on her back; a woman hunched over her, rhythmically compressing her chest in an attempt to save her life.

Erickson snatched his 5-year-old son and ran down his stairwell, leaving him just inside the door--he didn't want his child to see anyone die. He ran over to the group, hunched down over the young girl and cleaned the water, foam and and "a little bit of blood" off her face before starting mouth-to-mouth.

"I've never had a CPR class or anything, but you see it on TV enough," he said. "After I was there about a minute, I saw the girl take a short, shallow, labored breath."

Thus began the story of the girl who was dragged unconscious and unbreathing Sunday night from Forest Park's south pool. She was taken from the scene to Altru Hospital for further care, by which time she already was breathing. Police and hospital officials said they cannot publicly discuss her status.

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But it wasn't clear at the time how the evening would unfold. While Erickson hunched over the girl, working desperately to keep her alive, he didn't know if the girl was getting enough air or not.

But Erickson and the woman kept at it. It felt like the girl was inflating just like a balloon, he said, while the woman kept performing chest compressions and praying at the same time.

He can't recall anything going through his mind at all.

"I saw a kid," he said. "That's it. I saw a child. The woman obviously needed help, the child obviously needed help. I just came down and tried to help. Nothing really hit me until after. ... It was humbling and emotional and scary. It scared me. The whole situation scared me."

WDAZ-TV identified the woman as Ashley Elliott, who also lives at the apartment complex. Erickson called the scene "chaos," a sense reflected in the wide-eyed recollection of neighbor Melissa Buckner.

Buckner said she remembers the handful of squad cars and the ambulances that rushed  to her apartment complex just moments after girl had been plucked from the pool.

"When I was coming out of my bedroom, my grandson--he calls me Missy--he said, 'Missy, a girl just drowned.' So I ran to the door, busted the screen door out, looked over the (balcony)," she said.

The girl, whose name has not been made public, looked limp as paramedics picked her up from the poolside concrete.

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"I'll never let my granddaughter in that pool without me or my son," Buckner said.

Grand Forks police said there isn't much to add to the young girl's case at this time, and speaking on Tuesday morning, Grand forks Police Lt. Bill Macki said it was being investigated as an accident.

"We just would like to remind people to pay attention to their pools," he said. "It's never a bad idea to monitor people who may have lower skills when it comes to swimming."

On Tuesday morning, the pool at Forest Park apartments was quiet, without a ripple on the surface and no sunbathers on the deck. A sign hung on the black metal gate: "The pool will remain closed until further notice."

The incident was at the more southern of the two pools at the complex, situated in one of the apartment complex's inner courtyards between four buildings, all of which have inward facing balconies and plenty of windows; a sign states there is no lifeguard on duty and children younger than 13 years old must be accompanied by an adult.

The young girl, Buckner said, lives at the apartment complex. After Buckner's grandson called for her, she said she saw the young girl being hauled out of the pool by the woman who performed CPR on the girl. The woman yelled for another adult to call 911, Buckner said.

According to Bruce Melin, senior building inspector with the city of Grand Forks, the apartments and the pool seem to be up to code--at least in his book. For pools like the one at Forest Park,  the area needs a self-latching, self-closing gate; fences at least 5 feet high; and it must be at least 8 feet from property lines and buildings.

Melin visited the pool Tuesday, and he said it was compliant but now is closed. He spotted the "no lifeguard on duty" signs, which he said are par for the course for private pools, much like the kind found in hotels or at other apartment complexes.

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Richard Klockmann, a senior environmental health specialist with the Grand Forks Health Department, added other assorted requirements, which include that proper safety equipment be on hand--including a throwable flotation device and a "shepherd's crook"--and said exit ladders have to be available as well.  All appeared available Tuesday morning at the pool.

Klockmann added there are no requirements for lifeguards at pools like the one at Forest Park.

Dave Bosh, safety coordinator with IRET Properties, the group that owns and manages Forest Park, said there are no code violations at the pool that he knows of and no such incidents have happened at the pool in the past. Beyond that, he said, IRET isn't able to comment on the matter until police release more information.

"We've been in contact with the Grand Forks Police Department," he said. "Their investigation is ongoing."

That's what Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Johnson said.

"We're looking into as many specifics of the case as we can," Johnson said. "In a case like this, that probably means speaking to as many witnesses to the incident as we can and determine if it was an accident. We're looking, essentially, to make sure that there was no crime involved."

Despite the investigation, Erickson said one thing is certain: he might not have made it in time to help save the girl if Elliott hadn't gotten to the girl before him. It might have taken him too many precious seconds to be there, he said.

"That woman saved that little girl's life," he said.

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