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‘Unsafe and dangerous’: Health district received complaint about water park same day teen died

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 7:40 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2021 at 1:49 PM EDT
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - The same day 14-year-old Mykiara Jones died after she was pulled from the water at Land of Illusion Aqua Adventures, the local health department says it received an anonymous complaint alleging it was overcapacity and “unsafe and dangerous.”

The Butler County General Health District disclosed the complaint to FOX19 NOW when we asked earlier this week if they had any current or past ones about the water park in Butler County’s Madison Township, some 40 miles north of Cincinnati.

The complaint type, which the health district says it received Tuesday, July 20, is related to alleged conditions at the water park on Saturday, July 17. It’s classified as a concern about a “pool/spa/beach.”

The complaint states:

“Was there on Saturday from 1-4 pm July 17th. Said that she felt that they were overcapacity. She said there was like 600 people there. There was no adult supervision for business. There was a group of teenagers running the whole place. The water slide was shut down. Kids were going in and out of the (adventure) ride using both ends. Kids were pushing other kids around. No one was trying to control the crowd. Felt it was unsafe and dangerous for people that were there.”

Under current state law, health departments in Ohio lack authority to regulate or oversee this type of facility in any way, nor do they have any enforcement capabilities, Butler County General Health District wrote us in an email.

The county’s health district, under the Ohio Department of Health, inspects and regulates public swimming pools, but not lakes, they say.

“We do not have jurisdiction over this type of swimming facility, thus we have no enforcement capabilities. We do inspect the concession stand that is a licensed food service entity,” they said in response to our inquiry about Land of Illusion.

“The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates water amusement rides (not lakes) (such as Kings Island), but does not regulate this type of facility. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommends levels of bacteria that are allowable for freshwater swimming lakes. This type of facility is not required to submit any water testing to the Butler County General Health District.

“Our staff did however go out (Wednesday) to conduct drowning prevention education with the facility, as we have in the past, and as we do for public swimming pools. We provided them all information given to regular pool operators, and have done this in the past.”

“Though Ohio law does not give us authority to regulate or oversee this type of facility, our staff did visit (Wednesday) anyway, as we have in the past, giving guidance and suggestions. Our staff, as well as all of Butler County, are greatly saddened by this tragedy and we extend our sympathies the family and friends of this young woman.”

When two officials to the county health district went to Land of Illusion on Wednesday in response to the anonymous complaint and “also in response to a drowning that occurred on” Tuesday, they made several other recommendations, a copy of their response shows.

“This facility does not fall under any regulations for the aqua adventure and the swimming in the pond. We were advised the capacity for the aqua adventure course is 180 patrons. Four lifeguards are stationed on the course and several more around the pond.”

They recommended the water park get lifeguards and add signs that: people in water need to have life jackets, swimming alone is not recommended and children must be supervised.

The county report says the water park employs 30-35 “lifeguards.”

“We spoke about how the guards should be able to scan their area and respond to anything in their designated area within 20 seconds. Facility will look over information and see if additional guards could be added.”

Health district officials wrote in their report the entrance to the aqua adventure course is only on one side with long buoys around the rest of the course. “There is also a climbing wall in the pond outside of the course. The slide does not go into the pond and is an inflatable slide.”

Complaints against a water park where a 14-year-old drowned earlier this week are piling up, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones announced Thursday.

Sheriff Jones says several people have contacted his office claiming past and possibly ongoing violations of regulations at Land of Illusion Aqua Adventures off Thomas Road in Madison Township.

That continued Friday morning.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” he told FOX19 NOW. “We are asking the public to turn over any photos or videos from the park, or dates they were there and what they saw.”

The alleged violations include failing to have certified lifeguards, enforce life vest rules and have rescue equipment readily available, according to the sheriff.

Mykiara was not wearing a life vest at the time she vanished under the water, Sheriff Jones said.

“The Land of Illusions lifeguard located her at approximately 5:30 p.m.”, about a half-hour after she went under, the sheriff wrote in a news release.

According to Land of Illusion’s website, “attendants are not lifeguards.”

The website states:

  • “Do I need to know how to swim? No, but you are required to a wear a life vest while on the Wibit or Paddle Board. SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK – attendants are not lifeguards.”
  • “We provide life jackets for guests. Everyone is required to wear a life jacket while using the Wibit or Paddle Board. You are encouraged to bring your own life jacket.”
  • “In our lake that surrounds our large Wibit, the water ranges from 2 ft to 10 ft. In our lake that surrounds our kids wibit, the water ranges from 2 ft to 8 ft.”
  • “All park attendees must sign a waiver - all patrons 17 and under must have a parent or legal guardian. Everyone 18 and over must fill out their own waiver.”

“After this tragedy, the number of complaints has been staggering,” Sheriff Jones said, “and I feel it’s very important to obtain all relevant facts to ensure everything is being done according to regulations and safety guidelines.”

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office is handling the investigation.

Sheriff Jones is seeking assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

Reached for comment Friday, Attorney General Dave Yost told FOX19 NOW: “Any loss of life is a tragedy—it’s even worse when it’s a child, a young life full of promise and possibilities. We are closely monitoring the investigation through local law enforcement and with our client agency, the Ohio Department of Agriculture.”

The sheriff said he personally reached out to the attorney general on Friday: “He said anything we need, to just let his agency know.”

Mykiara was a freshman in the Middletown school district, where her mother is an employee at one of the schools, according to the superintendent.

No funeral arrangements have been released.

Meanwhile, FOX19 NOW also contacted the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for licensing installations at amusement parks and water parks in the state.

“Amusement rides inspected under Ohio law include mechanical rides, roller coasters, go-karts, water rides at water parks and inflatable devices,” the department’s website states.

But an ODA spokesperson, Shelby Croft, tells FOX19 NOW that they do not license or inspect inflatable devices on lakes such as those at Land of Illusion.

She said there are other amusement installations at the Land of Illusion that are required to be inspected and licensed by ODA but are not.

“Land of Illusion requested inspections recently to license three other devices (a Euro bungee, rock wall, and inflatable slide) that are operated on the ground,” she wrote in an email to FOX19 NOW.

“Upon inspection, the facility did not have the required documentation to complete the inspections and receive licenses, and therefore, ODA advised that these devices could not operate. ODA is currently awaiting complete documentation from the company. Once the documentation is secured, ODA will inspect these devices, and permission to operate may be granted.”

On Friday, ODA released additional information, saying they were scheduled to inspect the bungee, rock wall and inflatable slide on Friday, July 16.

“Upon arrival, ODA found that Land of Illusion did not have proper documentation for these amusement installations. We advised that we could not conduct an inspection without the necessary paperwork, and without an inspection, these devices could not operate,” Croft wrote FOX19 NOW in an email.

“ODA is currently awaiting complete documentation from the company. Once the documentation is secured, ODA will inspect the devices. ODA does not have reason to visit Land of Illusion until an inspection is rescheduled as we do not inspect any other amusement devices on the premises.”

Sheriff Jones said his agency was not made aware of the complaint the Butler County health department received about Land of Illusion’s water park the day the Mykiara died, or the issues the state Department of Agriculture ran into with the park’s bungee, rock wall and inflatable slide until FOX19 NOW asked him about what we uncovered.

He expressed some frustration.

“It’s sad there’s no communication between these agencies and local law enforcement and the township, what they have approved and what they haven’t approved or complaints they got,” he said.

He said his detectives were still working to determine if the “lifeguards” at the water park are actually certified lifeguards or, as Land of Illusion’s website states, “attendants” who are not.

“This is basically a mess,” the sheriff said.

State Rep. Thomas Hall (R-Madison Township), is a former Madison Township trustee, from 2016 to 2020, who was was on the trustee board when this water park opened.

He said the county, not the township, oversees the zoning in the township.

Last year, the county turned down a multi-million expansion plan at Land of Illusion.

Land of Illusion started in 1997 with just a haunted trail. Additions of the Holloween Haunt Scream Park, Aqua Adventures water park and a “Christmas Glow” event turned it into a full-fledged amusement park.

The expansion plan includes a 250-room hotel with indoor and outdoor water parks, campground with 140 hook-ups and 40 cabins, indoor entertainment center with arcade games, bowling and laser tag and an outdoor adventure area with ziplines, climbing zone, challenge course, team building center, canopy walks, ropes courses, kids treetop kingdom play area and hiking trails.

According to an online petition for the project, it is a $190 million investment over an estimated 10-year expansion. There would be 180 construction jobs on average annually during the expansion and a total of 500 operating jobs.

Hall is concerned about what he says this tragedy has revealed: a lack of oversight at both the local and state levels on places like Land of Illusion Aqua Adventure, so he’s acting to try to close that loophole.

He and his office are meeting with the Butler County health commissioner Aug. 5 as he starts to work on legislation to regulate oversight.

“I am working with the Department of Agriculture and our policy team in Columbus to see what legislation needs to be done at the state level to close this loophole,” Hall said.

“It is my understanding that it’s an area that no one is quite certain who regulates them or who oversees them, so we are going to try to work with our policy folks to correct this. We want to get that corrected and want the oversight. It’s important that in light of this tragic event that happened at Land of Illusion to ensure that nothing happens of that magnitude ever again for any family.”

The night Mykiara was pulled from the water, Land of Illusion said in a Facebook post “We are fully supporting state and local officials as they investigate the incident and would like to thank first responders and all those who participated in the rescue effort.”

On the evening of July 20, 2021, emergency response teams were dispatched to the Land of Illusion Aqua Adventure Park...

Posted by Land of Illusion on Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The water park closed Wednesday, Land of Illusion officials said in another post on the park’s Facebook page.

“We are fully supporting state and local officials as they investigate the incident,” a park spokesperson wrote. “We would like to thank first responders and all those who participated in the rescue effort. We ask that you join us in sending thoughts and prayers and our deepest condolences to our guest’s family and friends, as well as to the team members and guests who were on site last evening during this tragedy.”

Land of Illusion is saddened to learn of the passing of a young girl at our Aqua Adventure Park yesterday (July 20). Out...

Posted by Land of Illusion on Wednesday, July 21, 2021

On Thursday, Land of Illusion said on its Facebook page it “is committed to providing a safe and fun recreation destination for our region.

“We continue to offer thoughts and prayers to the family of the young guest involved in the tragedy on July 20, 2021. We also send our deep appreciation to the team members and first responders who supported the rescue effort,” the Facebook post states.

“Land of Illusion Adventure Park is committed to providing a safe and fun recreation destination for our region. We prioritize guest safety and training for our team and diligently comply with all Ohio regulations governing the activities and offerings available at our Aqua Adventure Park.

“We look forward to supporting and collaborating with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and other state and local officials as they continue their investigations following the tragedy.”

We continue to offer thoughts and prayers to the family of the young guest involved in the tragedy on July 20, 2021. We...

Posted by Land of Illusion on Thursday, July 22, 2021

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