City officials plan to discuss possible safety improvements at the downtown ARISE Town Square after a boy fell off the park’s floating pier and was swept downstream Sunday.
Deputy City Manager Ryan McCue said he plans to discuss with the public works, police and fire departments the 8-year-old boy’s fall into the rain-swollen river.
Police Sgt. Chad Pearson, who was one of several officers who responded Sunday, said the boy is OK after police and a fisherman in a boat teamed up to help the boy to the west river wall, where police lifted him out.
The city’s town square has been open to the public as a park for less than a year, and Pearson said Sunday was the first time he knows of anyone falling into the river while using the park.
The park has a floating pier and amphitheater-style steps that lead into the water. The steps and pier have no fencing or rails to keep people out of the water. That part of the park was designed to give kayakers and canoeists easy access to the river, officials say.
To the north and south of the park, a wall lining the river limits access and makes getting out of the river difficult.
After heavy rains, the river’s downtown stretch can have a swift current and undertows.
The town square has become an attraction for families and youth after an interactive fountain named The Bubbler was completed last year. It opened for its first full summer this year.
The Bubbler is a stone’s throw from the stairs that lead into the river.
On Monday, McCue suggested part of the safety burden falls on families who use the town square.
“We’re going to review the incident and determine what practical things, if any, can be done to make the area safer,” McCue said. “But I think that this is certainly an opportunity for adults to talk to children about the dangers of open water, especially on the Rock River.”
In an email to The Gazette on Monday, City Manager Mark Freitag suggested emergency flotation devices could be one safety upgrade at the town square.
“We have miles of river shoreline that do not have any fencing along the banks, to include sections with river wall by the (Hedberg Public) Library and Janesville Performing Arts Center for example. In our discussions this morning, one improvement may be to place round life preservers with attached ropes along our highly-trafficked river frontage. There may be other ideas that surface during Deputy City Manager McCue’s review,” Freitag wrote.
McCue said he’s unsure what measures could completely safeguard a part of the town square purposely built to give people access to the river.
According to police reports, the boy who fell into the river Sunday had been playing on the pier with another boy. The two were stretching their bodies out over the water to try to reach a canoe and kayak slip attached to the pier when the boy slipped and fell into the river.
The boys apparently were not being supervised by a parent, but shortly before the boy’s fall, two adults at the park told them to stop fooling around on the pier, according to police reports.
The boy was swept several hundred yards downstream in the river’s strong current and was struggling to stay afloat. Pearson said police threw a floating rescue rope to the boy, and a fisherman who was in a motorboat near the Racine Street bridge helped the boy up out of the water.
“We discuss and tabletop train emergency response plans for people who fall in the river. When we get a call like that, officers respond to the bridges down the river so we can monitor and make repeated attempts at rescue,” Pearson said.
Normally, the fire department launches in a rescue boat, but the nearest slips to launch a larger watercraft are a quarter-mile or more up or downstream of the town square.
Pearson said the presence of a fisherman nearby at the time of the boy’s accident was fortunate because he was able to help quickly. Pearson called the current in the river right now “scary.”
George Moffett, a local highway construction worker who was at the town square warming up for a jog Monday morning, said it scares him that there’s no fencing or barriers in the lower area of the park to deter young children from going into the river.
He believes the city should place at least one emergency flotation device at the town square, plus signs that warn people against trying to swim in the river. He wonders whether the city could put in more railings or a fence to keep children from walking into the river, or if they could bolt loops of emergency rope on the river walls that people can grab hold of if they slip in.
Moffett said The Bubbler, which he called a “splash park that’s like a magnet for little kids” is located just above the stairs down to the riverfront. He pointed out how people standing or sitting at The Bubbler don’t have a clear line of sight to the open riverfront below.
“If you’re yakking away with another person, or you’re messing around on your phone and not even paying attention to your kid, they could go walking right down those steps and into that river. Or right out onto that pier, and off the edge. And maybe you don’t even see them go down there,” Moffett said.
“And they go into that river current, and there you go. They’re just gone.”