JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Whether or not there was a cover over the access to an underground tank where the body of 3-year-old Amari Harley was found Sunday evening is part of an investigation spanning the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the city and the Florida Department of Children and Families.
If the tank access was not secure, it would be at least the third time since April 2016, according to records obtained by the I-TEAM.
City officials said the underground tank in which Amari's body was found is part of the lift station of the septic system for restrooms at the Bruce Park in Arlington.
Mayor Lenny Curry went to City Hall on his day off Tuesday to talk about Amari's death and park safety.
"A family is suffering, a child is dead, a city is mourning and we have to allow the investigation to play itself out so they can do their jobs," Curry said. "We have to look at all of these public records that you looked at, see if there's any additional information, and if there were mistakes. There will be accountability and there will be a process forward to ensure that we are doing our jobs and making sure that our city is safe."
The city said the underground tank in which Amari's body was found is part of the sewage system used for rest rooms in the Arlington park, and the city said Bruce Park is one of 76 parks that have septic or lift stations.
City workers were out early Monday, screwing makeshift wooden covers onto the openings to the tank in which Amari died. Plastic or fiberglass coverings that some residents reported had covered the opening previously were sitting by a nearby trash can. On Tuesday, the plywood was replaced with a concrete lid.
"Our parks and public works staff have been working to go to our parks and public spaces to assess the safety and security measures in place," the mayor said.
Curry said he learned of Amari's death Sunday night and asked Sheriff Mike Williams to keep him informed. He said he called the Harley family Monday to offer his condolences.
"We have neglected infrastructure throughout the city," Curry said. "This isn't the time (to assess blame). This is the time to mourn with the family."
The I-TEAM obtained inspection records for the city's 121 lift stations, including at 76 parks, and found each are inspected monthly.
According to city records, Bruce Park's Jan. 27 inspection reads, "All Ops OK," but three days later, a park maintenance order was issued Jan. 30, after a citizen reported "an uncovered hole with water and sewage" next to the restroom area. The complaint went on to say, "Parsons School uses this park daily along with children who come to this park in the afternoon." The city said the repair was made the following day.
But just two weeks later, on Feb. 13, city report stated, “Entryway to wet well needs to be secured to tank top.” On Monday, a spokesperson for the city said the top was secured after that inspection.
The January work order noted that there had been a similar issue reported on April 20, 2016, which was estimated to be fixed by June 1 that year.
The woman who made that complaint, Terri Durham, took to Facebook after hearing of Sunday's tragedy, writing, "I've seen the hole and reported it to COJ. I stated kids play in this park and schools are in the neighborhood that use the park for daily with this open hole. That poor baby," adding, "There's was no top on it."
The I-TEAM's search of public records found two other citizen complaints about Bruce Park since 2013 -- lights out on a pole in the basketball area were reported in August, and on Monday the city got a complaint that a historical marker was covered by overgrown bushes.
Amari's father, Willie Harley, told News4Jax Tuesday he was shocked and saddened to learn there had been previous safety concerns about the access to the tank where his son died.
Curry said he's seen the inspection reports and has asked Daryl Joseph, the director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, to answer questions at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
"Are there things that can be done better? There always are," Curry said.
Hours later when Joseph went before the City Council, he confirmed that each month, septic systems at the more than 70 parks in Jacksonville are inspected, including Forestview Park in Northwest Jacksonville, which the city said is the only other park with a similar septic tank lid as the one at Bruce Park. When the I-TEAM went to Forestview Park Tuesday night, one screw was missing from the tank cover.
"Based on our review, the Bruce Park septic tank system has received monthly inspection with the last inspection being conducted Sept. 12," Joseph said at the City Council meeting.
A city spokeswoman said when the one at Bruce Park was inspected on Sept. 12, it was OK. That inspection took place the day after Hurricane Irma left parts of the city underwater and without electricity.
When the I-TEAM tried to talk with Joseph as he left City Hall, he was told not to talk.
"JSO has advised that we do not discuss the incident in detail while they are conducting the investigation. Any information may compromise their investigation," Public Affairs Director Marsha Oliver said.
The Sheriff's Office has said there did not appear to be any foul play, so it's unclear why talking about preventing another tragedy would compromise the investigation.
At the park Tuesday, the memorial of balloons and flowers grew, and strangers remained confused, saddened and angry about Amari’s death.
"It hurts my heart," one visitor said. "I just had to come and pay my respects. It could’ve been one of mine. It could’ve been one of my grandchildren."
Attorney weighs in on possible legal consequences
The I-TEAM was told Amari's family is working to obtain an attorney days after the 3-year-old’s body was discovered the underground tank, which is part of the septic system at Bruce Park.
A legal expert, who is not representing the family, weighed in on the legal consequences that could follow.
Attorney John Phillips said Tuesday that the public needs to remember there’s two sides to the investigation: criminal and civil.
“JSO has pulled the rubber covers, and it may be they’re doing fingerprints to find out more information to see who removed the cover," Phillips said. "Otherwise, there's the civil side, and the family can retain an attorney and sue the city and, potentially, third-parties if they were involved, like a sewage company.”
Although Amari's family could go after the city in civil court, Phillips said, the city’s attorney could counter the family’s claims by raising the question as to why no one was watching Amari when he first disappeared.
“The court would look at everybody like a piece of pie," Phillips said. "So if the family was 40 percent responsible, then that would carve up 40 percent of what the ultimate judgment was. If the city’s 30 percent responsible, then they would carve that out."
Both the city's parks and recreation director and the city public affairs director said they were told by JSO to not comment for fear it would compromise the police investigation. Phillips said they’re all on the same team when it comes to preventing having to pay a settlement.
“They’re going to try to put up whatever walls they can, No. 1," he said. "No. 2, just because there’s no foul play, it doesn’t mean there might not be a crime related to who unsecured this hole.”
Phillips said he wouldn’t be surprised if leaders in other cities are looking at Harley’s death and are now questioning whether or not the same thing could happen in their city.
Map of all city sewage lift stations in Jacksonville
Checking other counties
After Amari's death, the I-TEAM looked into whether underground water tanks pose a danger at parks in other local counties.
In Nassau County, all the septic tanks at county parks are buried underground, making them inaccessible to the public, except for one at Goffinsville Park in Fernandina Beach near the Nassau River. But that one has a metal cover and a locked hatch to prevent anyone from intentionally or accidentally getting inside.
A Nassau County maintenance worker said the septic tanks are difficult to open, even with the proper tools and a key. He said for a child to get into one, something would have to be wrong.
County officials said those how it should be.
In St. Johns County, septic tanks are protected with locked lift station covers, steel covers and concrete lids. County officials said each tank is inspected regularly by two different staff members and that they all comply with state standards.
At Clay County parks, most tanks are underground with locked metal and concrete lids, the I-TEAM has learned. None are accessible to the public, and none have fiberglass covers.
An official there said septic tanks are inspected “as needed.”
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