Lapsed pool permit, scores of questions

Inspectors failed to see body at site; neighbors mourn Fall River woman

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By Peter Schworm and Ben Wolford
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2011

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FALL RIVER - The permit for the state-run swimming pool where a woman’s body went unnoticed for more than two days this week had expired six months ago. A city health inspector who examined it Tuesday determined the water was cloudy, but did not see her remains resting on the bottom.

The pool had not been inspected in about a year, and its permit had expired Dec. 31, the city’s mayor, William Flanagan, said yesterday. He would not elaborate on the permitting process.

Flanagan put two inspectors, who had stopped by the pool Monday, on paid administrative leave and ordered the immediate inspection of 21 public and semipublic pools in the city, including hotel pools.

Lifeguards and swimmers who were at the pool Monday and Tuesday told investigators the water had become murky since Sunday, raising the grisly possibility the body’s decomposition may have been contributing to the decreasing clarity.

“The water got murkier and murkier,’’ said Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the Bristol district attorney’s office, which is investigating the death of 36-year-old Marie Joseph.

Said Flanagan, “We will determine what the inspector meant when he put ‘cloudy’ ’’ in the report.

Two dozen state pools with depths of more than 2 feet will remain closed while officials review safety procedures. Most pools, other than the one in Fall River, are expected to reopen this weekend.

The pool was inspected Tuesday, just hours before Joseph’s body was pulled from the water. She had last been seen by a child going down a slide into the water Sunday afternoon.

The details that became available only deepened the mystery of how so many people, including teams of lifeguards and throngs of swimmers at the popular pool, could have failed to spot her body for so long. It raised sharp questions about whether those responsible for safety at the pool, from staff to city inspectors to state officials, may have neglected their duties.

Veronica Reis, 21, a friend of Joseph’s, told a reporter that the 9-year-old boy who preceded Joseph down the slide tried to alert lifeguards, but said they ignored him. He then tried to rescue her, but could not.

“The little boy was trying to pull her back up, but he couldn’t,’’ she said. “She was too heavy, and she was too slippery from the water.’’

Flanagan and Miliote would not comment on any attempts to alert the lifeguards, saying it was part of the investigation.

Residents of Fall River and angry friends of Joseph’s said the incident nearly defied belief, and a top state official blamed the lapse on a systematic breakdown of proper procedures.

“You have facts which would appear to indicate that a woman was in the water for a number of days and not noticed by staff or patrons or other inspections that may have taken place,’’ Richard Sullivan, the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, said at a morning press conference. “I personally find that disturbing. I personally see that as a breakdown systematically somewhere.’’

Sullivan said the agency will determine if regulations governing pool clarity, as well as protocols for opening and closing the pool each day, were followed.

State officials also pledged to determine how lifeguards apparently did not notice that Joseph remained underwater and how her body escaped notice when the pool was closed or being cleaned or prepared to open the next day.

Officials have provided scant information about their findings so far in the case.

“We are very serious about determining the what, the how, and the why of this tragic event,’’ Edward Lambert, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said at a press conference.

Lambert, a former mayor of Fall River, said that the public has “a right to have answers’’ and that the agency would hold itself accountable for any lapses.

Joseph went down the slide right after the 9-year-old boy, whom she knew, authorities said. It was not clear whether she knew how to swim. The water around the slide was 12 feet deep.

A state spokeswoman said lifeguards are expected to follow certain guidelines regarding pool slides, but declined to provide details.

State health officials said the pool’s chlorine levels were adequate and that those swimming in the pool after the incident were not at risk.

“I want to reassure the public that, as disturbing as it is to think about being in the pool, there are really no health risks associated with that,’’ said Lauren Smith, medical director for the state Department of Public Health.

On Monday, two city health inspectors stopped in when they drove by the pool and saw it was operating without a permit. They scheduled an inspection for the following day, Flanagan said.

An inspector examined the filtration system, the water circulation, chlorine levels, and water clarity. Water clarity yielded the only abnormal reading.

Investigators are combing through video footage from the pool for clues while they await autopsy results, which could be released today. They said they believe her death was accidental.

Joseph went to the pool Sunday afternoon with two other adults and six children from their Fall River neighborhood, said Reis, her downstairs neighbor, who dropped them off.

At 5 p.m., when the pool was closing, Reis went to pick them up. But no one in the group knew where Joseph was, and, after waiting a while, they went home.

“We thought she probably came back home,’’ Reis said.

On Monday, however, Joseph’s 19-year-old son, Rudy, who lives with her, asked Reis if she had seen Joseph. She had not.

Reis called Joseph’s cellphone frequently, but when she got no answer, figured she was staying with a friend.

“Nothing bad ever came to our heads,’’ Reis said.

Friends and family were used to Joseph, who was from Haiti, being away for days at a time, often with little notice, Miliote said. They knew her as a free spirit who met new friends easily and would often go on spur-of-the-moment excursions.

Friends said Joseph kept to herself in her third-floor apartment on Fall River’s west side, but she was close with fellow Haitians and cooked the dishes of her home country for neighbors. Joseph worked as a housekeeper, they said.

“It’s really strange not seeing her on the chair laughing,’’ neighbor Dee Reid, 49, said through tears.

Reid wondered why Joseph went into the deep water, saying she had once said she could not swim.

Those who knew Joseph said they were furious lifeguards did not come to her aid Sunday and shocked that workers at the pool did not find her body earlier.

“I just want some answers,’’ Reis said. “I want to know what is going on. I want to know what is going to happen to the lifeguards. I want to know what is going to happen with the funeral. We’ve got a family that can’t afford a funeral.’’

“There were a lot of people here Tuesday,’’ said Katie Perreira, 28, of Somerset. “How did they not see that?’’

Joy-Lyia Ortiz, 13, who lives two blocks from the pool and swam in the pool Monday and Tuesday, said thinking about what happened gives her shivers.

“We didn’t know,’’ she said. “You can’t even see down there.’’

Dennishia Bates, a 13-year-old who was also there Monday and Tuesday, said she will not go back until she can watch them drain the pool.

“I want to know what else is down there,’’ she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at Ben Wolford can be reached at