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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Wichita, Kan.

At Wichita's Water Wall, frolicking without a net

'No swimming' signs are uniformly disregarded as kids wade, climb and play as if it were a liability-free world. So far, no big injuries.

July 05, 2009|Robin Abcarian

WICHITA, KAN. — The Water Wall fountain was always intended to draw people to this city's struggling downtown waterfront. Situated on municipal property in front of the Hyatt Regency, Wichita's swankiest hotel, it was part of a $5-million redevelopment project designed to support the Hyatt when it was built about 12 years ago.

The wall is a 300-foot-long graceful arc of tawny stone that gently reaches west toward the Arkansas River, water tumbling over its facade.

On the east end, the wall is flush with the sidewalk, but as the ground on its south side slopes toward the river, the wall gets higher and higher until it ends, finally, with a long drop.

The Water Wall is meant to be soothing and contemplative, but on a hot summer day recently, Kenda Fischer, an ICU nurse, and her mother, a retired ICU nurse, stared at it in horror.

In particular, the women -- Hyatt guests who live three hours away in Hays, Kan. -- were focused on three boys playing in a trough about 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep along the top of the fountain. From the trough, water cascades over both sides of the wall.

There, in that narrow channel, Earl Crabtree, 13, Israel Reynolds, 12, and Calvin Cole, 10, were frolicking without a care.

They floated along as if the trough were a lazy river. They straddled it, legs apart, bare feet on the narrow, slippery sides in order to scoot past a hidden pump that recirculates the fountain's water.

Sixteen feet below them, shallow water pooled around a jumble of jagged boulders.

Fischer, 38, appeared to be holding her breath.

"As an ICU nurse, I don't get nervous," she said. "This makes me nervous. I am thinking someone is gonna fall off the edge, and I'm gonna have to do some nursing on my day off."

Her mother, Sandy Ochs, 68, gaped: "Oh, my God."

What would happen if the boys fell?

"I would think they could have a fractured skull, a fractured vertebrae," Fischer said. "With paralysis ensuing."

"Or instant death," her mother said.

"Yeah," Fischer agreed. "Death would be the biggest one."

Earl said he and his pals had walked to the Water Wall from their homes nearby. His parents were not with him, he said, but they knew where he was.

Calvin positioned his swim goggles over his eyes, dunked his head into the water and wiggled around.

"It's OK," Earl said. "We don't do nothin' crazy."

A few feet away, a young man was scaling the stone wall as sheets of water tumbled over him, using the stones jutting out as toeholds.

Thrillingly, the Wichita Water Wall seems to exist in some sort of pre-liability world, a throwback to a time when grown-ups were not consumed with taking the fun out of everything because someone might get sued. (All right, or seriously injured.)

The tableau brings to a nostalgic mind the vanished perils of childhood summers past: rope swings over shallow swimming holes, bouncing diving boards at public pools -- once-innocent things now gone the way of toy guns, riding a bike without a helmet and other demonstrable social evils.

Wichita officials are aware that children may risk injury playing in the fountain, not just along the top, but also in the water-slick strip along the bottom that looks like a series of shallow steps.

"Now you know my fears," said Wichita's director of parks and recreation, Doug Kupper. "We have had skinned knees, but we have not been made aware of broken bones. I am knocking on wood as I say that, because they do slip. When they start scaling the wall, though, that makes us nervous."

Small brass signs posted around the fountain are uniformly disregarded. "Preserve our fountain," they say. "No swimming or wading."

As to how the city enforces the ban, Kupper said police officers occasionally advised parents that children should not be in the water, which is chlorinated and filtered, but not at the bacteria-annihilating level of a public pool.

"What's more important: preventing armed robberies or going down and asking kids to get off a fountain?" Kupper asked. "When it's mobbed by 100 kids, one person can't control the circumstances."

Steven Stewart, general manager of the Hyatt Regency, said his staff tries to monitor the fountain, even though it lies on city property. But it's an impossible task.

"People come by the carloads to enjoy it," he said. "They refer to it as 'the water park.' Amazingly, there have been no injuries."

Meanwhile, on the day that Fischer and Ochs stood near the fountain worrying about broken necks, Nikolsha Espinoza, 26, a stay-at-home mom, was watching her children, Lilly, 7, and Jesiah, 9, run around the bottom. She doesn't allow them to play at the top of the fountain.

As for why she brings them here instead of to a city pool, she shrugged.

"It's fun," she said. "And it's free."

--

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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