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St. Paul Fire Dept. speaks out amid rise in dangerous urban exploration incidents

Several young adults were exploring a storm sewer outfall that opens into the Mississippi River, when a quick moving thunderstorm cost one his life.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The growing vigil for 20-year-old Tiquann "T.J." Davis Jr., near St. Paul's Marshall Avenue bridge, is both a sad and frustrating reminder of what's at stake for the St. Paul Fire Department.

"A tragedy occurred here and it's happened in the past," said Steve Sampson, Deputy Chief of Operations for the St. Paul Fire Department. "That is probably the hardest thing for us to grapple with, is the fact that this is preventable."

Sampson says Davis and four other young adults were attempting to explore the storm sewer outfall that opens at the Mississippi River early Sunday morning, when a quick moving thunderstorm moved through and put their lives in immediate danger.

Sampson: "It's essentially the final discharge point for all of the storm sewers that we see. They collect into one large area, and discharge into the river. These particular individuals were exploring that particular entrance point and obviously succumbed to the elements that took place that night."

Erdahl: "All it takes is just a little bit of rain, I'd imagine, for it all to come funneling and flush people out."

Sampson: "That's absolutely correct, and a lot of times when people are in these confined areas, they're not aware what's taking place above ground or above grade."

Though two people made it out of the tunnel in time, three were swept into the river. Rescue teams managed to save two of them, but Davis drowned.

"We get that there is a draw to this area," Sampson said, referencing the tunnels and caves along the river. "We're aware of that, however, the dangers are real, as we've all witnessed here."

Sampson has witnessed it far too often during his 12 years with the Department. He's the former Captain of Rescue Squad Three - the high, and low, angle rescue team most often tasked with rescuing people from the tunnels and cliffs along the river. Each time he helped someone avoid tragedy, he noticed a common response.

"They didn't think it would ever happen to them, they thought they were adequately prepared," he said. "No one goes in there with the intention of getting injured or getting harmed or needing help to get out, but unfortunately that happens all too often."

In fact, he says emergency calls to the tunnels and caves are up this year, and that's following a year that also featured some big rescue operations, including a single response involving 30 teens in 2020.

"A lot of what we're seeing are what has been termed 'urban explorers,'" Sampson said. "We welcome the exploration of our natural resources that we have here within the city of St. Paul, but the bottom line is, the safest way to do that is to stay away from these areas."

In addition to trying to raise awareness about safety concerns, St. Paul Fire has spent years trying to build barriers and block entrances.

"Unfortunately people try to overcome those barriers, or they find a different way to enter some of these spaces," he said.

That's what happened in 2017. Multiple teens slid into a sealed cave through a ventilation shaft, before realizing they couldn't get back out. Luckily rescuers found them before threats from weather and carbon monoxide posed an issue.

But this past weekend was yet another reminder that rescues aren't always possible, and their job is never over.

"We don't ever want to see it again, the toll that it's having on our personnel is immeasurable at this time," Sampson said. "We take these calls very, very seriously. It's hard, and everyone takes that to heart."

It's not just that these trips can turn dangerous, they also tie up a lot of resources on both sides of the river. At least four agencies responded on Sunday, and Sampson says St. Paul Fire alone sent 30 firefighters and eight vehicles. Those are people and trucks that were prevented from going to other calls.

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