Tyler R. Craig could not swim, but the 18-year-old Buffalo resident was anxious to get into the hotel pool.
Shortly after he jumped into the water at the Millennium Hotel pool in Cheektowaga last Sunday, Craig struggled and cried out for help. Shardae Morris and another friend tried to save him. But neither of them were swimmers either.
Morris said she had known Craig since he was about 9 years old and, despite their six-year age difference, they were close - so much so that she casually referred to him as her nephew instead of friend. She described this week Craig's final moments, a tragedy that began with much excitement and anticipation of good times.
It started when a friend of hers rented a double room in the Millennium so they and several children between the ages of 4 and 9 could go swimming, Morris said. Craig was invited to join them.
"I thought he was overexcited or something, because he couldn't wait to get in the water," Morris recalled.
Morris said they had just arrived at the pool, and she and the other woman were watching over the children they brought with them who were playing in the shallow end of the pool. The hotel's pool is between 3 and 7 feet deep.
Asked if she knew whether Craig could swim, Morris said she didn't know. "No. I don't know. I've never been swimming with him," she said.
But she said that she heard Craig tell a friend of hers named Shannon, who was at the pool, that he could swim.
"He said he knew how to swim," Morris said. "He said, 'Can I dive?' Shannon said, 'No, don't dive.' ... He was like, 'Why?' And she was like, 'You can't dive - it says so right there,'" Morris said.
"He just jumped in regular – feet first. But I don't know if he knew how deep it was," she added.
The tragedy unfolded quickly.
"He went down and he came back up, and then we see like, yo, he's drowning. So, I'm like, 'Shannon, I cannot swim,' and she said, 'I can't swim either,' " Morris said, referring to her friend.
Even though she did not know how to swim, Morris said she dove in to try to save Craig. She was stymied not only by her own inability to swim, but Craig's struggles, which threatened her safety.
"Now we're trying to help him, and he's like pushing us down. We're coming up and getting air and we're letting him push us down to get him some air, but we can't swim. Nobody else did anything. We were the only two that put in effort to do anything about it. Everybody else just sat around and watched," she said.
She estimated that there were about 20 people in the pool area.
"When he gave up, I had to, like, pull him off of me so I could come back up for air. It was like he was hugging me. His arms were around my shoulder, his legs were around my waist, and now we're both sinking. I had to let him go to come up. Finally, I'm pleading for my life," Morris said.
At some point, Craig stopped struggling and sank to the bottom of the pool. Morris clung to the side, trying to catch her breath.
"Some lady — I don't know where she came from — she was like, 'Somebody's drowning?' And we were like, 'Yeah.' And she jumped right in and swooped him from the bottom right up and brought him to the side. They tried to give him CPR," Morris said.
"I didn't have no more energy. I had used all my energy trying to help him, and I can't even swim," she said.
As Morris was gasping for air, Shannon was on her cellphone calling police, who arrived about five or six minutes later and administered CPR, Morris said.
"They didn't have an attendant in there. It's a big pool area. There didn't have to be a lifeguard, but they could have at least had a staff person who walked through once in a while, or something," Morris said.
Craig's family has started a GoFundMe page to collect donations to pay for his funeral expenses.
Under state rules, no lifeguard was required at the hotel pool, according to the Erie County Health Department.
The hotel has a permit for the pool, a spokeswoman for the Erie County Health Department said.
There are several levels of supervision requirements that may be employed for pools at hotels or campgrounds in New York State. Pool operators are allowed to select which level of safety measures they follow. The Millennium Hotel chose the minimum level of approved supervision available under New York guidelines.
Under those guidelines, hotel staff were required to conduct one visual check of the pool per day, verifying that safety equipment is present, checking for hazards and reviewing water conditions. The life-saving equipment required at poolside are two ring buoys and a pole able to reach at least 15 feet. The hotel is not required to have any CPR-trained staff on the premises.
The Health Department sent representatives to the hotel pool Monday, the day after Craig died. The department Tuesday said reports from that visit were not available because they were not yet completed.
The pool is irregularly shaped, "like a comma," the spokeswoman said.
Public pools are inspected annually by the Health Department, though inspections may happen more frequently if there's a complaint or if a follow-up is necessary.
A March 14 inspection of the Millennium Hotel pool found minor deficiencies, which dictated a follow-up inspection on March 31, the health department said.
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