About 15 seconds after the start of the team-building exercise, the football players were on the verge of drowning.
It was three weeks before the start of the season for the West Valley High School football team in Fairbanks, Alaska, and 40 players participated in a two-hour conditioning program deemed essential by the coach. In one activity, the players had to wear a sweater in the pool, remove it, and then put it back on — all while swimming in the deep end.
But not all of the Wolf Pack players could swim — a fact that didn’t seem to concern Coach Roy Hessner, witnesses told KTVF.
“He already knew that kids couldn’t swim, and there were about three kids still holding onto the ledge,” one witness said.
Soon, the players who could swim screamed for help as three of their sweater-wearing teammates sank to the bottom of the deep end on July 26, the Associated Press reported. As the lifeguard on duty at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks was ready to jump in the pool, the coach allegedly wanted to see how it played out, KTVF reported.
“She was trying to get in, but our head coach, he told her, ‘It’s okay, they’ve got it on their own,’” a witness said.
After the lifeguard and adults in attendance jumped in and dragged out the teens, the three unresponsive boys had to be resuscitated with CPR and were later hospitalized, the AP reported. The players were left to wonder how the situation even got to that point.
“Everyone there was pretty much bawling their eyes out and either mad or just sad that this was going on,” one witness said, according to KTVF.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District said Thursday that Hessner had resigned following the near tragedy. In an email to West Valley parents and staff, superintendent Karen Gaborik said the school district is conducting an investigation and interviewing those involved, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“This incident has shaken not only the students and staff involved, but also parents, families, employees and others who support high school football in our community,” Gaborik said.
Police at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks are also conducting a separate investigation, the school district said. Requests for comment for Hessner and the school district were not immediately returned late Thursday.
Earlier in the week, the district announced that all three football players injured in the swimming incident had been released from the hospital. (Their names have not been made public.) The district named Norm Davis, an elementary school teacher, as the acting head coach for West Valley, which kicks off its season on Aug. 16. It was initially unclear whether Hessner, a retired Marine who was only hired as head coach last December, would remain on the staff.
The near disaster in Alaska is the latest in a string of questionable and potentially dangerous workout routines in recent years for high school athletics programs looking to find an edge — sometimes at the risk of player safety.
The team was about 90 minutes into its two-hour preseason conditioning session at the pool when the coach ordered players to put on the sweaters. The workout was labeled an “optional preseason activity” by the coaching staff, but there was nothing voluntary about it for those who were there.
“He said, ‘You have to be there if you want to play or earn your pads during this camp,’” one witness told KTVF, referencing Hessner.
When the young men were pulled from the pool around 7:30 p.m., some teammates dreaded the worst.
“They pulled one kid out and his arms were just stiff, he was just stiff,” a witness said. “He wasn’t moving. I just started bawling my eyes out cause I genuinely thought he was dead.”
He added: “They pulled the last kid out [and] I thought he was dead because he was purple and he wasn’t moving at all.”
Witnesses lauded the lifeguard and other assistant coaches for pulling the athletes out when they did.
“If the coaches didn’t jump in, I really think that some kids would have died then,” one person said, “or if the lifeguard didn’t jump in, [the] first kids would have died.”
Parents will have a chance to speak out on the issue on Monday at a special board meeting, the Daily News-Miner reported. Gaborik, the superintendent, thanked parents for their patience.
“I understand that it can be difficult and, like you, I want answers as soon as possible,” she said.
More from Morning Mix: