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Tokay students, staff mourn death of drowning victim

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Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002 10:00 pm

Tokay High School students and staff Monday mourned the loss of 16-year-old senior Chhayarong Kong with a moment of silence during a school assembly.

Kong was found unconscious at the bottom of the school's swimming pool at about 1:30 p.m. Friday during a physical education class. Shortly after the sixth-period class began, a student dove 8 feet to the pool's bottom thinking he had spotted a sunken towel at first - instead he found Kong's motionless body.

Kong did not know how to swim, said his mother, Sobunvy Kong, wondering why he was allowed in the deep end of the pool at all.

Chhayarong Kong
Chhayarong Kong

School counselors talked with peers in Kong's honors and advanced placement classes Monday to help grieving students, Tokay Principal Chris Hoffman said.

"It was a somber mood on campus, " Hoffman said.

Kong was a new student at Tokay this year after moving from Maryland with his family.

The senior was remembered as a quiet student who was a sponge when it came to academics, Hoffman said. As a non-native speaker, Kong learned enough English in three years in the United States to take college prep classes, Hoffman said.

Kong, who was interested in studying computers at the University of California, Berkeley, following graduation, just completed his senior project on a computer programming language, Hoffman said.

On Monday, the school remembered Kong with a moment of silence at the beginning of the annual slide show recapping school year events.

Senior class leaders and classmates are considering paying tribute to the teen-ager at the May 30 graduation ceremonies by placing an empty chair among the candidates, Hoffman said.

Lodi Unified School District officials are still trying to piece together the cause of Friday's drowning, Superintendent Bill Huyett said.

"Certainly school safety and supervision are important, not just in the pools but for all of our fitness programs and activities," he said.

The district requires teachers to supervise their students in the pool instead of staffing lifeguards when students swim, he said.

Many of the PE teachers, who are also coaches, are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation procedures, though it's not required by the district, Huyett said.

But Anthony Silva, a lifeguard instructor who works for the city of Escalon's Department of Parks and Recreation and volunteers for the

American Red Cross, said lifeguards should always be present when youths are swimming, and people who can't swim should never be allowed in the deep end.

"Before swimmers can go into deep water, they have to pass a swimming test," Silva said, citing American Red Cross life-guarding rules.

The training that Tokay's instructors receive is a four-hour basic water safety course, and not real lifeguard training, Silva said.

"A lifeguard probably could've seen something like that," Silva said of the drowning. "The event is tragic - maybe nobody is at fault, maybe everyone's at fault.

"You can't substitute for having a professional lifeguard at a pool."

Lincoln High School in Stockton has two lifeguards on deck at all times for a smaller pool than Tokay's, Silva said.

Kong's mother was also confused about how her son's drowning went unnoticed for an extended period of time.

"Why didn't they see him in the pool? It's not that big," she said. "If they saw him on time, I think he would have lived."

On Friday, three swimming classes and a weightlifting class, whose members had a free swim day, were scheduled to use the pool.

Huyett and other school officials would not estimate how many students were in the pool at the time, although four classes means the number could have been more than 100 students.

However, Huyett said overcrowding was not an issue.

District officials are investigating the drowning to examine whether changes need to be made to pool practices, Huyett said.

Kong was not the first person to drown in a Lodi Unified pool. More than a decade ago, a student drowned in the Lodi High School pool, Huyett said, though he didn't have details of the prior incident.

Until Friday, Tokay's pool never had an incident since opening in 1975, he said.

The police department's investigation was complete by Sunday, but specific information about the emergency response to the drowning is beginning to surface.

After Kong was spotted at the bottom of the pool, a teacher and a student pulled him from the water before calling 911 at 1:32 p.m.

Six minutes later, Lodi Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Larsen was poolside, even before the fire engine arrived.

CPR was already in progress by a teacher, according to dispatch records, but the victim remained unconscious without vital signs.

Fire personnel took over, continuing resuscitation. Kong was "shocked" twice in an attempt to get a heartbeat before paramedics from American Medical Response arrived on scene, according to the records obtained Monday by the News-Sentinel.

The ambulance company was dispatched at 1:34 p.m. and arrived at 1:40 p.m., AMR supervisor Barry Elzig said.

Drugs and intravenous medicine were administered by AMR paramedics when they arrived on scene.

A tube was inserted into Kong's lungs to allow him to breathe artificially before taking him by ambulance to Lodi Memorial Hospital, Elzig said.

It was nearly 30 minutes before a pulse was heard and Saturday, after being transferred to Oakland Children's Hospital, Kong was pronounced dead.

An autopsy conducted by the Alameda County Coroner's office revealed that drowning was the cause of death.

News-Sentinel staff writers Nicholas Grudin and Jennifer Pearson Bonnett contributed to this report.

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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