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Watts pool drowned in violence

Community leaders look for ways to guarantee safety after a group attacks workers at the 109th St. site.

June 24, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

A day after opening the summer swim season in the midst of a ferocious heat wave, the L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks shut down one of the more troubled neighborhood pools in Watts after a band of young men took over the pool deck, attacked the manager and threw him, a lifeguard and a locker room attendant into the water.

The 109th Street Swimming Pool is between two public housing projects, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, and two competing neighborhood gangs. And it wasn't the first time the facility had experienced difficulties.

Last year, the city stationed armed guards at the pool during swimming hours and installed video cameras in an attempt to monitor and control unruly crowds that had become a threat to the pool staff and younger swimmers.

But in the sweltering heat Sunday, trouble turned into terror. The pool was packed with more than 200 swimmers, and the two armed guards and six pool workers were easily overwhelmed when up to 30 men went on a rampage.

The chaos at the 109th Street pool was the only reported incident at the start of the city's summer season, which on Saturday drew 23,000 swimmers to 30 seasonal pools and 17 year-round facilities operating on extended hours. But the incident has sparked a debate over pool safety in the city's pockets of gang activity.

Community leaders in Watts and other parts of South Los Angeles have asked for more protection and plan to man the pools with neighborhood volunteers, primarily older men.

On Monday, Recreation and Parks officials announced that the pool would be closed "until further notice or until we figure what we are going to do," said Jane Kolb, a department spokeswoman.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has been backing an effort to increase security at the pool, said the violence was "unacceptable."

"I want that pool open again, but it has to be safe for the staff and children," she said. "Now we have 200 children who are out on the streets and doing what?"

News of the closure was not welcomed outside the pool, where a group of teenagers showed up expecting to escape the heat with an afternoon plunge.

"It's hot out here," complained Antwon Miller, 15, who briefly contemplated a trip to the county pool on 103rd Street. "There's nothing to do. If we go over to 103rd Street we could get popped."

Miller was in the throng of neighborhood teenagers who rushed to the pool for opening day. A local television channel videotaped children splashing and enjoying relief from the heat. But even Saturday, there were moments when the staff was challenged.

Some of the adults were complaining about the $2.50 fee to enter. There was rough play in the water, which grew cloudy because some swimmers did not rinse off before entering and because others jumped in wearing their clothes. Then came an announcement that the pool needed to be temporarily closed for cleaning.

"The water wasn't safe," pool manager Christopher Molina said. "It is our responsibility to make sure the water is safe. But they wanted us to know this was their pool and we just worked there."

The atmosphere grew even more tense Sunday when pool officials announced, again, that the water had become too cloudy and the pool needed to be closed. A group of men in their 20s and 30s were told first in an effort to enlist their help, but they refused to go.

"We asked them to leave and things went out of control," Molina said. "They weren't listening."

Molina watched as his staff was quickly overpowered. The lifeguard on the tower was thrown into the water, followed by a locker room attendant. Molina said he was grabbed as he tried to make it to his office to dial 911. He was punched and thrown in the water, he said, and the armed security guards were unable to stop the crowd.

"It all happened so fast," Molina said. "They just flipped the script."

A call to 911 reached a dispatcher shortly after 3 p.m., said Capt. Thomas McDonald of the Southeast station. But officers did not respond right away because they were answering a call involving a report of a man with a gun at another city pool. That report proved unfounded.

Eventually, the crowd at the 109th Street pool dispersed -- before police arrived.

For the last few weeks, the safety of young swimmers and pool workers has been a topic of concern at meetings of the Watts Gang Task Force, whose membership includes Hahn.

Last week, one task force member was so concerned about the start of the swim season that she asked the councilwoman to authorize the use of inflatable pools in the community.

But Hahn, whose father, former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was responsible for the construction of many of the pools in South Los Angeles, considered the suggestion the same as admitting failure.

"Every kid deserves to be able to go to the pool in the summer," she told the group.

At last week's meeting, the task force vowed to come up with a comprehensive plan to guarantee safety at the 109th Street pool.

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