Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2014

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Hot tub turns deadly at high school prom party

As she helplessly lay pinned at the bottom of the 3-foot-deep hot tub whose drain was left unprotected by a broken grate, Tanya's shocked friends tried in vain to pull her free. Frantically they tried to bail out some of the swirling water with their hands.

"She's not coming up!" one classmate yelled.

Several minutes elapsed before someone finally reached the emergency shutoff in the basement of the Atlantic Club, where Tanya and her friends were attending a midnight-to-dawn post-prom party Saturday -- alcohol-free and supervised. By then it was too late.

"Everyone's eyes were on Tanya when they pulled her out of the water," said Carla Morris, 17. The girl coughed -- "We said, 'All right, Tanya, you're going to make it,' and she went back down again."

The 16-year-old girl was placed on life support but died late Saturday at Jersey Shore Medical Center.

Kevin McHugh, the club's general manager, said it was the first time anything has gone wrong in seven years of "Project Prom" parties at the club.

Tanya had missed Friday's junior prom because she forgot to pay a deposit. But she joined 300 high school classmates at the post-prom party.

At about 5 a.m., she hopped out of the swimming pool and into the 10-person hot tub, ducking underwater to douse her hair.

At the same time, someone flipped a nearby switch to turn on the whirlpool pump, which is on a 10-minute timer.

The force of the water was 170 pounds per square inch, flowing through three 1-foot-square openings covered by plastic grates, county public health coordinator Lester Jargowsky said Tuesday.

One grate was broken in several pieces, he said, and the 12 tons of suction, generated by a 10-horsepower motor, pulled Tanya's thighs and buttocks into the drain and pinned her at the bottom of the pool.

A club lifeguard tried to pull Tanya free, but "she couldn't move this girl an inch," McHugh said. A police officer hired for the party jumped in -- uniform, gun and all. Several other officers arrived and also joined the fruitless struggle.

Jargowsky said the grate may have broken from years of stress. He said the club met all codes and standards, but that having a safety cutoff switch near the pool should be a requirement.

McHugh expressed surprise at the report and refused to comment until he read it. "I'm not sure if it's accurate," he said.

At Lakewood High School, counselors spoke to students Tuesday. Tanya's friends remembered her as lively and cheerful.

"You walk around the hallways, a lot of people are crying," said neighbor and classmate Scott Snyder, who knew Tanya since the sixth grade. "It's all pretty much pulling people together. A lot of people loved Tanya."

Outside the one-story school, a weather-beaten wooden sign reading "Home of the Piners" had a maroon T-shirt draped from it reading, "Lakewood High School Project Prom After Prom Party."

Below it about a dozen bouquets were spread across the ground. At the parking lot entrance down the block, the school message board read "In Memoriam" on one side and "We Love U Tanya" on the other.

At the family's request, the viewing was to be held today at the school gym. A funeral Mass was scheduled for Thursday.

"She was so young," said her brother, Stephen Andre Nickens. "We all loved her. Now we'll just try to stick together as a family to get through this."

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