Boy Scouts burned by acid in community pool paying own medical bills

Accident • City and pool company deny liability for pump malfunction.
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One summer evening, three Boy Scouts were working on a swimming merit badge in a city pool in rural eastern Utah when toxic chlorine gas suddenly sprayed out into the water.

A pool pump malfunction sent all of them to the hospital with critical burns to their lungs.

The boys still have permanent effects from the July 13, 2011 accident. Darion Bird, 11, was flown to Primary Children's Medical Center where he was in the Intensive Care Unit before being released. He has racked up more than $34,000 in hospital bills. Sometimes, he has to use an inhaler for asthma that he didn't have before. Just walking down a laundry detergent aisle at a grocery store causes severe agitation to his lungs. As a result, his family has purged its home of chemical cleaning products. His mother, April Bird, who was in the pool with him, also suffers effects of internal burns to her lungs.

Darion's cousin, Dakota Bolton, 13, visiting from Colorado, recovered at the local hospital with Joey Newell,11.

No one has taken responsibility yet, so the families are left with the cost.

While Lorry Bolton waited to hear updates on her son, who was improving, she said she was somewhat comforted to know the financial burden of emergency bills wouldn't be an issue.

"At the time it happened [the city] said they would take care of everything," Bolton said. "We want the city to take care of it so we can move on."

The city denies ever telling the families they would take care of insurance bills.

Who is responsible? • Now, 1½ years later, liability for the accident still is undetermined. The multiple parties involved and changes in adjusters handling the case have slowed the process, according to Duchesne city attorney Craig Smith.

Smith said the city — which is insured through the Utah Local Governments Trust — isn't at fault but wants to make sure the kids are taken care of. If the city is proven liable, it will pay, the attorney said, but added, "We don't think we are solely responsible."

He alleges the pool company, Sandy-based Intermountain Aquatech Inc., is responsible. Duchesne's insurance adjusters allege the accident happened because a pump flow switch was never installed, leading to the chemical mix and eventual combustion.

Brad Bjorndal, president and owner of Aquatech, a nationwide company that won the bid in 2004 to install a new pool for Duchesne, adamantly denies the claim.

The city wanted to save money, so it opted to keep the existing pump, lines and chemical feed system from a dilapidated pool, likely from the 1970s, Bjorndal said. Servicing of the pool was contracted to a chemical company, he said.

"Duchesne city is the worst municipality to take care of a pool," he said. "They did what they could get away with, so they could save money, and they probably did that with the maintenance all along."

An investigation by Aquatech's insurance company showed there was a power outage for an unspecified amount of time the day of the incident, Bjorndal said. A public records request for all reports of the incident was denied for reasons not disclosed by the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office.

The outage stopped the pool pump, which circulates chlorine to kill bacteria and hydrochloric acid to reduce the pH, Bjorndal said, adding the scouts were left swimming in stagnant, untreated water. State code requires public pools to have complete recirculation of their water.

Bjorndal said he believes the failure was caused by the power outage and the city's failure to maintain the equipment. He said the chemicals began building up in the pump and when it started working again after the outage, a chlorinated gas was pushed into the pool.

"If you had a power outage, you would get everyone out of that pool," he said.

Bjorndal said he found out about the incident when the city contacted him five days later.

Taking a toll • Bird said she got the runaround from the city's insurance adjuster for months and reported her frustration to Duchesne Mayor RoJean Rowley, who had visited the injured boys at the hospital the evening of the incident. The mayor spoke to the adjuster on Bird's behalf and gave her information on where to submit the bills and told her the city would make sure everything was taken care of, according to Bird.

But four months later, she got a collection bill, Bird said. She hired a lawyer in November 2011.

"It was the last course of action I wanted to take," she said, adding she didn't know where else to turn.

To avoid her credit being affected, her family drained their savings to pay the majority of the bills. She still owes $17,000 for the Life Flight transport.

Bird and Bolton's insurance companies also want to be reimbursed by the city but have not filed lawsuits.

As the battle over liability continues, the Bird, Bolton and Newell families are left to bear the cost on their own.

"It wasn't something the city intentionally did…but on the other hand it has been something that has been a hardship for our family and depleted our savings," Bird said.

"In my mind, that is what we pay insurance for. It is frustrating to me that the city's insurance is not doing that."

Twitter: @CimCity —