Coach says ‘no’ to lifeguard as students start to drown in football training incident

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska This past Friday night, three students associated with the West Valley Wolfpack football program suffered injuries during a training exercise at the University of Alaska Fairbanks swimming pool. The exercise they participated in mirrored that of ‘The Program’ which involves swimming back and forth in a pool, doing push-ups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, etc. It also has the participants wear a sweater in the pool, remove said sweater and put it back on while in the deep end of the pool.

Reporter Aaron Walling interviews eyewitnesses known as 'Subject 1' and 'Subject 2' about a pre-season football training exercise at the University of Alaska Fairbanks swimming pool that resulted in 3 students almost drowning. (Aaron Walling/KTVF)

One eye witness account (Subject 1) said that about six of the students didn’t know how to swim but they were still told to get in by Head Coach Roy Hessner.

“We got in on the wall, and then he [Hessner] told us to push off. For like the first five or like ten seconds everyone was like good I guess”, said Subject 1. “Then like 15 seconds in people were like just struggling, like struggling, struggling. There is kids screaming at the top of their lungs for help and everything and I was like kind of closer to the wall. So I just grabbed onto the wall because I just didn’t want to drown. So I got onto the wall and the lifeguard that was there she was trying to get in, but our head coach he told her, ‘It’s ok, they’ve got it on their own’. ”

Another eye witness account (Subject 2) said that the head coach knew that some of them didn’t know how to swim.

“He already knew that kids couldn’t swim, and there were about three kids still holding onto the ledge”, said Subject 2. “They weren’t saying they didn’t want to do it, it was like they didn’t want to because before they got off the ledge it was already heavy with the sweater.”

Three students required CPR after they were pulled from the water. According to a press release that was put out by the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District all three students were transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for treatment and overnight observation. According to the press office at UAF, at least one student sank to the bottom. Subject 1 spoke about what happened after they got out of the pool.

“When I got out of the pool, and then I saw the lifeguard, she jumped in and then she came back up and she said she couldn’t grab him. At first I started crying, because I just didn’t know what was going on. They pulled one kid out and his arms were just stiff, he was just stiff. He wasn’t moving. I just started bawling my eyes out cause I genuinely thought he was dead. When they kept pulling more kids out, they pulled the last kid out I thought he was dead. Because he was purple and he wasn’t moving at all. Everyone there was pretty much bawling their eyes out and either mad or just sad that this was going on.”

According to the eye witness known as Subject 2, they were training for over an hour and a half before they were instructed to put on the sweaters. According to post on the West Valley High School website, this three day camp was listed as mandatory. On the Alaska Schools Activities Association website for their handbook, it states:

“The coach or other personnel representing the school is prohibited from requiring any athlete to participate in an out-of-season sport, training program, or travel team as a condition of selection for the in-season team.” In the Out-of-Season Participation Policy section on page 83.

Subject 2 had this to say when asked if the coach made the camp mandatory.

“He did, he said you have to be there if you want to play or earn your pads during this camp.”

According to both witnesses, they said that Coach Hessner did not jump into the water.

“He wasn’t doing anything, like anything at all”, said Subject 1. “I saw him on the phone, but then after that he didn’t do anything. I didn’t see him help any, because pretty much every coach that was there was either going into the water grabbing a kid or they were outside the pool talking to kids calming them down and he just didn’t talk to any kids at all. He wasn’t trying to help any of the kids.”

“The coach is just standing there, three coaches and the lifeguard jumped in cause they saw like three kids still in there.” said Subject 2.

“If the coaches didn’t jump in I really think that some kids would have died then, or if the lifeguard didn’t jump in first kids would have died.” said Subject 1.