One recent sweltering weekend, more than 300 Shaw area youths went to the D.C. Recreation Department's Banneker Pool to cool off, only to discover they could not use two-thirds of the pool because there were not enough lifeguards on duty.
Inside the men's locker room, swimmers found a broken bench, exposed pipes and an uncomfortable level of dirty water on the floor. A noxious odor that permeated the room was barely diminished by powdered pool chlorine, which lifeguards were forced to use because the usual disinfectant had not arrived.
Many children, with no place to put their street clothes, begged for wire baskets from those leaving the pool. On their way out of the locker room to swim, the children - some barely two feet tall - had to brave a series of cold showers that exploded from the walls like gushing water from a firehose.
Once in the pool, they had to ignore the scum that bubbled up from below.
Public swimming pools operated by the D.C. Department of Recreation have been the target of criticism for more than two years because of unsanitary conditions, supply shortages, safety and maintenances problems and near chaotic operating conditions. This year is apparently no different.
Last year, several pool managers met with two aides to former D.C. City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker to outline their concerns. Alan Grip, a former aide to Sterling Tucker, said meetings were held but no formal report was ever issued.
This year, pool operators and life guards interviewed said although many improvements could be made, they are doing the best they can for the estimated 1.3 million youths that use the city's 43 indoor and outdoor pools.
As one pool operator said, "They tell us to open the pools and we just make do with what we have."
During the past week at a number of public pools throughout the District, however, there were both major and minor problems. They included cloudy water, improper chemical balance - which left swimmers' eyes burning - a chlorine gas leak, too few lifeguards on duty, shortages of supplies and, in one case, no locker room attendants.
In the past, these problems have resulted in temporary closures of pools by the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. This year, however, the department has inspected only four D.C. public pools, according to records of the city Bureau of Air and Water Quality.
Narendra Mather, bureau spokesman, said the pool inspection division is currently understaffed. He said there are only two inspectors in charge of examining the District's 197 pools, which includes those at apartments, hotels and private homes.
William Ruby, who is in charge of pool inspections, said there were major problems last year in five recreation department swimming pools, including Takoma Park, where there was a water leak in the pump housing compartment near high voltage equipment. He said he did not know if repairs had yet been made.
James Tompkins, director of the aquatics division for the recreation department, said all major repairs had been made at the D.C. pools, including Takoma Park.
About supply problems, Tompkins explained, "We are converting to a new supply system using the District's maintenance department and we are having a few problems getting supplies on time."
Tompkins, who said he could not give an exact figures for the budget of D.C. public pools, said it was about the same as last year, which he estimated at "a million dollars plus."
Tompkins said he was familiar with a number of the problems at the pools concerning lack of supplies, but was not aware of several of those dealing with safety questions.
Last week at Anacostia pool, a reporter was present when only a single lifeguard was on duty despite the fact that 125 people were in and about the pool. The other seven lifeguards were in the pool office talking. The pool operator said he uses his discretion in situations when the pool is not crowded, despite the fact that regulations require one lifeguard on duty for every 75 swimmers.
The Anacostia pool operator also said there was a chlorine gas leak in the basement of the facility. He said it was being repaired. Tompkins said that any chlorine gas leak is dangerous, and if inhaled in large enough doses could send the victim to the hospital.
Ronald Stamps, 13, who lives near Banneker Pool, sums up in three words why he does not swim there: "It's too filthy."
Stamps said scum floated on the surface of the water and friends had told him they lost clothes and money in the locker room while they were swimming.
"I swim at Francis Pool because it is one of the cleanest pools I've been to. All the other pools use too much chlorine," he said.
The Banneker pool, according to Tompkins, was built in the late 1930s and was the major swimming pool for blacks during the era of segration. Banneker and Takoma Park pools were supposed to be models for pools constructed during that era.
The problems at Banneker, in many cases, are caused by the age of the facilility, Tompkins said. He added, however, that he plans to look at the pool again and see what can be done.
The pool operator at Banneker said there were problems in getting supplies and that work orders had been placed for repairs such as the broken bench.
Problems existed at other as well. At Fort Dupont, swimmers had to bring their belongings out to the pool deck because there were no bathhouse attendants.
At the Takoma Park swimming pool, an improper pH level, which is the acid an alkaline balance, left swimmers' eyes burning.
Several pool operators, who complained that young swimmers were not taking soap baths, had failed to check if their locker rooms actually had soap. In a number of cases they did not.
While there were a number of problems at pools, many of the pool operators said their lifeguards, which appear to be a younger crowd this year than last, were very dedicated and very competent. Tompkins said many of the lifeguards were in high school.
According to D.C. reports, only two people have drowned in the past seven years, although there have been several near drownings.
Pool operators and lifeguards alike, have grown accustomed to the criticism as well as the shortcomings of D.C. public pools. As one assistant lifeguard put it: "We are told each year that things will improve. . . but they never do." CAPTION: Picture 1, Ebony Alston, 2, clings to her father at Banneker Swimming Pool. By Joel Richardson - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Curtis Gregory, 11, dashes through Banneker pool showers. By Joel Richardson - The Washington Post