Public safety upgrades at the ARISE Town Square can’t come soon enough for a Janesville woman whose son fell in the Rock River while playing with a friend on the pier July 7.
“I’m afraid. It was an honest mistake, an accident, but it could have been very fatal,” the woman said in an interview with The Gazette this week. “So I don’t want to be by the river at all. I don’t even like driving over there. For now, we just won’t go there.”
Since the boy’s fall from the pier, city officials are working to install new safety devices that will be close at hand if anyone at the town square ends up in the river.
Deputy City Manager Ryan McCue on Tuesday said the city plans to place a “throwable” emergency flotation device at a station near the floating pier, which is intended as an access point for kayakers and canoeists.
He said the city also is considering installing a floating “safety rope” that could be attached to moorings at the Court Street bridge just downstream from the town square.
Bodycam video, courtesy of the Janesville Police Department, of the water rescue from the Rock River on July 7, 2019.
McCue said the rope would span partway across the river and serve as a lifeline if a person got swept downstream in the current.
That’s what happened to the boy July 7, officials say.
He and a friend were unsupervised at the town square and stretching over the edge of the town square’s floating dock, trying to reach a metal canoe and kayak slip attached to the pier.
The boy slipped and fell in the river, according to police reports. The current pulled him several hundred feet downstream, and the boy struggled to stay afloat as police worked from atop the river wall to toss him a rescue rope.
Eventually, the boy caught the rope, and a fisherman in a boat nearby helped police pull him to safety, officials said. The boy was exhausted and scared, police said, but otherwise uninjured.
After the incident, McCue said he met with members of the police, fire and public works departments to discuss possible safety upgrades at the town square.
The area, which is off South River Street on the west side of the river, has stairs that lead into the water. The stairs and adjacent floating pier have no barriers to prevent children from going into the river, and the park has no posted warnings against swimming or about the sometimes-swift current.
One Janesville man who often visits the town square told The Gazette last week that the “Bubbler”—an interactive, water fountain-like sculpture—is viewed by families as a “splash park” and has become a “magnet” for children. The man said some children he sees at the town square are unsupervised.
McCue said the city has no plans to place additional fencing, barriers or railings around the lower part of the stairs or pier area.
He said the pier area was designed to give canoeists and kayakers unimpeded access in and out of the river.
McCue said the city is ordering an emergency flotation device. He said city officials must discuss the floating safety rope idea with the state Department of Natural Resources to determine whether state law allows it.
McCue said since the boy’s accident, officials have gotten feedback from parents about safety at the park.
“Frankly, most of them were of the opinion that, you know, adults need to supervise their children, and you need to be careful around the river,” McCue said.
The woman whose boy fell in the river didn’t want her or her son’s name used because she said the family is in a program for victims of domestic violence. She said since the accident, she has talked with her son about the dangers of open water.
She is now leery about him going to the town square unsupervised—even though she said he is old enough to walk home from school by himself.
The woman thinks the city should put up “3-foot” safety fences or barriers to make it harder for people to reach the open water or fall in the river.
She said in Beloit, similar pier areas along the river have “3-foot-high” safety fences that kayakers simply hoist their boats over.
“I mean, that could have been an elderly couple on that pier, you know, sightseeing, and they stumble and fall,” she said. “It could have been a drunk guy leaving the bar or something and falling down there.”