Lilydale survivor, parents of victims cope with tragedy

1:11 PM, Jul 24, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Two months ago, a landslide in Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul killed two children and injured two others.

Their parents sat down with KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio News to talk about what happened.

Fourth graders from Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park were hunting for fossils on the school field trip when the landslide happened.

It's hard to even imagine. Parents send their kids out on a field trip and they come back severely injured -- or not at all.

That's what four families faced the day of the landslide and their lives have been changed forever.

"When I woke up, I was halfway in the dirt," says 10-year-old Devin Meldahl, who was buried alive.

His mother Danielle was by Devin's side when he was interviewed by KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio News.

"I couldn't get out to get up," Devin says. "My teacher said not to move and I didn't move for a while ... She said a whole bunch of dirt fell on you and a couple kids."

Devin was covered over his head in mud, dirt and rocks. He only survived the landslide at Lilydale Park he tells us, because of his teacher.

"I said Ms. Reichert get me out. Ms. Reichert said, 'I am trying to.'"

Devin's mother Danielle says she might have easily missed her son if not for his hair.

"The only reason how she found Devin was she saw a little bit of his hair sticking out of the mud. His hair was a lot longer than this and we were actually supposed to cut his hair the night before and we didn't get around to it," says Danielle.

Teachers Sarah Reichert and Penny Dupris dug Devin out to his waist he says and then emergency workers took over. Danielle remembers the principal's call.

"She said there was a landslide today and Devin is buried and that's all we know," says Danielle. "My mind went blank and I said, 'What?' And she repeated it and I said, 'What?'"

After 90 minutes and with the bluff still unstable, emergency workers dug Devin out. He spent a week in the hospital.

"It never crossed my mind that anything was going to happen. You know, you expect your children to be taken care of when they go to school and you expect them to be safe," says Danielle.

Today, Devin's scars and the rest of him are healing. The heavy, wet mud collapsed both his lungs. He had a fractured skull, broken ribs and a broken leg. His mother says Devin has accumulated about $100,000 in medical bills so far and the family had no health insurance when the landslide happened. Danielle has sought medical assistance from the county.

Devin says he is looking forward to getting back to school. He enjoys the outdoors and will again someday.

"I've been doing alright, but my leg it's getting better now," Devin tells us as he shows us the scar on his left leg. "I was going to play football this year because I think I'd be really good at it and since my accident I can't."

But what is most difficult for Devin is trying to understand why two of his classmates, friends, just looking for fossils together, died.

"I know they passed away and it's been kind of hard for me."

Haysem Sani was 9-years-old and Mohamed Fofana was 10 and both were buried by the landslide and killed.

Written accounts by St. Paul police officers obtained by KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio News provide new details about what happened that day and the rescue and recovery effort.

In a statement to police, a teacher on the scene described how a "park guide and a group of kids" went down a hill to find fossils. The teacher then heard a loud bang, kids screaming, then coming out of the woods, it was chaotic.

It was difficult for officers to find the group of fourth graders. One officer writes that he could not find an "access point."

And once they got to the buried children, rescuers had to move away "rocks, timber and dirt", digging with "hands" and "shovels."

After several days of rain, Lilydale Park was wet and muddy. Police officers described "hazardous" conditions and the threat of another landslide.

One officer called the incident his most "mentally" and "physically" challenging.

"He was always smiling," says Sartu Nagayo of her young son Haysem Sani.

Haysem was born in the U.S. after his family immigrated here from east Africa 10 years ago.

Sartu and her husband, Haysem's father, Mohamed Muse say they're thankful for rescue workers' efforts. They showed us a photograph that is likely the last of their son Haysem alive. It was taken, Sartu says, at Lilydale the day of the landslide. Haysem is standing with a group of friends in the photograph.

"He is a very, very nice boy. He's respectable. Everybody likes him," says Sartu.

The loss to Haysem's family and community can't be measured. He was a smart, outgoing kid who loved sports and school. His dream was to go to Harvard.

"It's really hard. I have no hope since he died," says Sartu.

"After he died, I am not really doing good. All the time I remember him you know because his vision come to me all the time," says Mohamed.

Haysem drew a small fossil book for the field trip. It was found in his pocket after he died. Haysem's younger sister and brother have so many questions.

"He's watching through the window everyday for school bus. He says, 'Where is my brother mommy? I miss him. I want him back home,'" says Sartu.

"I wish this not to happen to any American family, this, what happened to us," says Mohamed who later found the police officer who dug out his son and thanked her.

Two families lost their children that day.

"He was so excited about the field trip, really happy about it," explains Lancine Fofana, Mohamed Fofana's father.

It is a loss that doesn't feel real for Mohamed Fofana's father, Lancine, who is from Guinea.

"I got a call from school principal, telling me that the kids went to a field trip and they getting involved in accident. Firefighters, police officials in St. Paul tried to locate Mohamed," says Lancine. "I always kept myself calmed down. Maybe he could be injured, but I could not think about he was dead."

Mohamed was buried so deep by the landslide and the conditions were so treacherous, rescue workers had to call off the search until the next day and then had to deliver the news to Lancine and his wife.

"You dress up your kids in the morning, put him in the bus and evening, you find him dead."

Mohamed loved math, spent an hour and a half doing homework every day. His father says he was so proud of his son's accomplishments.

"It is just deep pain," explains Lancine.

Mohamed's life and death had such an impact on the community. Hundreds said goodbye at his funeral. It was a comforting moment for his family, despite the loss they feel every day.

"You always see Mohamed's space, so empty but in the heart Mohamed is still there and he will be there forever," says Lancine.

A fourth child, Lucas Lee, was also injured that day in the landslide. He had a broken ankle. His parents tell KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio News that Lucas has recovered physically, but he is still struggling emotionally with what happened.

At least two firefighters were also injured during the rescue and recovery efforts. One firefighter was hurt when a rock hit his head. Danielle Meldahl says that firefighter was trying to shield her son from falling debris while he was being dug out.

KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio News reached out to the two teachers who were with the kids that day and helped dig Devin out, but they did not return our calls. School district officials are not providing any details about what happened that day and issued a written statement citing privacy concerns for the individuals involved.

On Wednesday night on KARE 11 News at 10, the parents whose children were injured and killed in the landslide say St. Louis Park Public Schools should have given them more information about the potential dangers their kids would face on the field trip at Lilydale. Even the city warns visitors about the potentially hazardous conditions.

Our story about what parents say they knew and didn't know will air on KARE 11 News at 10 p.m. on Wednesday.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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