Community Remembers Boys Killed in Lilydale Landslide

Updated: 05/25/2013 10:24 AM By: Leslie Dyste

Mohamed Fofana
Mohamed Fofana
Photo: KSTP Photo

The St. Louis Park community is mourning the deaths of two boys who died after a landslide at Lilydale Regional Park Wednesday.

St. Paul has closed the fossil park after the two children were killed, and two others were injured, during their field trip.

Authorities on Thursday found the body of the second child who was killed. The search for the child resumed at about 9:30 a.m., when the area was no longer muddy, making it easier for rescuers to excavate the body, said St. Paul Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith.

The child, who authorities say was dead when he was recovered, has been identified as 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana, said his uncle Mohamed Bah. The second child killed has been identified as 9-year-old Haysem Sani.

Mohamed and Haysem were on a field trip with their fourth grade class looking for fossils at Lilydale Regional Park. Two additional students were injured.

One of the injured students has been released from Regions Hospital in St. Paul, said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. The second, who was rescued by helicopter, remains in serious condition.

"We feel we were able to save to the kids we could save," Zaccard said.

Two firefighters were injured during the rescue. One was hit in the head by a rock, and the other injured his back. Both are recovering at home, authorities reported.

On Thursday, St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said it's now believed that the landslide came from above where the students were walking. Authorities initially thought that the ground, which was saturated by persistent rain, gave way from underneath them.

Rescue Efforts

The landslide happened at about 1:15 p.m. Wednesday as the class, from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park, walked along a path near the edge of the Mississippi River bluffs.

St. Paul firefighters first received a call about a rock or landslide that may have trapped some people, Smith said. The slide happened near Cherokee Boulevard.

Police and firefighters dug frantically with shovels and their hands to get to the children. One child was buried to the waist and another was buried completely, Zaccard said. About 20 to 30 people, including city park and public safety staff members, helped with the rescue.

The left wall of the pit, where the children were after the landslide, stands 30 to 40 feet high, and was falling inward by the rain during the rescue, Smith said.

"We had a very dangerous situation that was facing all rescuers," he said.

It almost took an hour for rescuers to locate Haysem, who later died at the hospital. The two other children rescued had chest and leg injuries, Smith said.

Three trees were near the scene, hanging by their roots. Rescuers moved tons of sand from the fossil pit area, which "was the safest way of removing the soil," Smith said.

At that point, authorities were 100 percent certain that another child was still missing. Since it took nearly an hour to recover Haysem, Smith said the rescue effort turned into a recovery for the remaining missing child, who was later identified as Mohamed.

By Wednesday night, the recovery effort was suspended. Within a half-hour of starting the search Thursday morning, authorities had located the remaining child, Smith said. But it took another 45 minutes to remove the sand and rubble around the child's body.

"The outcome was not what we had hoped for," Smith said, "But in the big picture, nobody else was injured and the family now has closure ..."

The two children who died were about 4 feet away from each other, Smith said. Their bodies were encased in about 4- to 5 feet of soil and rock.

Zaccard estimated that the remnants of the landslide at the bottom of the cliff covers an area that's about 30- to 40 feet in diameter. The cliff has a steep drop off, he said. Geologists helped rescuers assess the area's dangers.

Community in Mourning

At Peter Hobart Elementary the memorial for Haysem and Mohammed grows.

Balloons, flowers and notes have been placed next to a fence in front of the school. Throughout the day folks from the community have dropped items off to express their sympathy. 

Dare Kreyton was on that field trip to Lilydale Park.

"It's really sad because the people that died I knew them, they're really funny and nice. And to know they are gone is really hard to take in," Dare said.

Her father is all torn up. 

"I'm just glad that more kids weren't hurt. That I'm really sad for the parents for the kids that didn't come home yesterday," Ted Kreyton said.

Back at the school, Kreyton says, her classmates want to remember the good things about Mohammed and Haysen and not what happened at the end.

In front of Mohammed's house his uncle reads a mother's day card his nephew made for his mom. He says, Mohammed's death has hit the family hard. 

"I'm just emotional right now. Can you imagine what the mother could be thinking?" Mohammed Bah said.

Right now he says, the family is relying on their faith.

"We just have to accept it as God's will, God has destined," Bah said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton attended Friday's ceremony at Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park.
Field Trips at Lilydale Regional Park

The city of St. Paul has closed off the fossil park at Lilydale Regional Park for an indefinite period of time, said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman on Thursday. No fossil hunt permits will be issued until the city determines why the landslide happened, he said.

The park "is a wonderful part of our city and an exciting place to be ..." Coleman said. "But at the same time, it's a wild area."

The area closed in the park can be viewed here.

Michael Hahm, director of parks and recreation in St. Paul, who spoke Thursday about the incident, said about 400 permits are issued on average each year for fossil-hunting at Lilydale Regional Park.

Last year, the city issued 417 permits.

The majority of permits are issued to schools and educational groups. The school group from Peter Hobart Elementary was scheduled to be at the site from 12:30 to 2:45 p.m. Wednesday. The city properly issued the school's permit, Hahm said.

On Wednesday, the city issued two permits for fossil-hunting in the park.

In the last five years, there have not been reported accidents or incidents in the area that have resulted in a claim against the city, Hahm said.

"Prior to the issue yesterday, there was no indication on any part that there were any dangers such as this that were possible," he said. "I am aware of no other occurrences even close to this nature that have happened in Lilydale Regional Park."

The area also has not been previously closed because of weather.

City officials suspect the rain played a role in the landslide, but the cause is under investigation. Geologists are also on the scene, trying to determine whether the area is safe. They will help decide if, and when, the area will reopen to the public.

Alan Knaeble, of the Minnesota Geological Society, said he was at the site Thursday helping examine the base of the site, and the stability of the slope. Knaeble has led dozens of school tours in the area.

Tammy Olson, who lives two blocks away, said she had never considered the park dangerous.

"I've been here six years, and my husband has been here 23. He said there's never been an issue with accidents down there," Olson said.