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Teen Held By 12 Tons Of Pressure Broken Grate Blamed After Girl Drowns In Hot Tub During Party

Wed., May 29, 1996

Tanya Nickens’ friends jumped into the hot tub and tried to pull her free, but the 16-year-old was hopelessly trapped by 12 tons of suction pressure in a drain left unprotected by a broken grate.

“She’s not coming up!” one classmate exclaimed.

Frantically they tried to bail out the tub with their hands, hoping to lower the water enough so the girl could breathe.

Several minutes elapsed before someone finally reached the emergency shutoff in the basement. 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.”

She was pronounced dead late Saturday.

Tanya had missed the junior prom Friday night because she forgot to pay a deposit. But she joined 300 high school classmates at a midnight-to-dawn post-prom party - alcohol-free and supervised - at the Atlantic Club.

At about 5 a.m., she hopped out of a swimming pool and into the 10-person, 3-foot-deep hot tub to warm up, 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.

But 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,” said Kevin P. McHugh, the club’s general manager. 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.

At Lakewood High School, counselors spoke to students Tuesday. Tanya’s friends remembered her as lively and cheerful, a member of clubs including a peer mediation group and Kids Against a Racial Environment.

“You could be depressed and she would come up and say ‘I love you,”’ said her friend Jill Medina.

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