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A ‘brain-eating amoeba’ killed a 3-year-old after he played in a public splash pad: ‘He didn’t deserve to die’

Bakari Williams's parents are suing the city of Arlington, Tex., which managed the splash pad at Don Misenhimer Park, alleging Bakari would still be alive had the city properly monitored and chlorinated the fountain’s water. (Screengrab WOWK)

Last month, when Bakari Williams’s parents took their son to the Arlington, Tex., splash pad they regularly frequented, the 3-year-old boy could barely contain his excitement.

That day, Bakari ran around the public fountain’s sculptures — a light blue whale and a yellow-and-green turtle — as a faux palm tree sprinkled water over his head.

But soon after his visit, all Bakari wanted to do was lie down, his parents said. The toddler swiftly spiked a fever over 102 degrees and had no appetite. He died on Sept. 11 after contracting a rare and often fatal infection caused by Naegleria fowleri, commonly known as the “brain-eating amoeba,” authorities said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later confirmed the presence of active Naegleria fowleri at the splash pad after analyzing water samples. Bakari likely contracted the rare amoeba at the Don Misenhimer Park water feature, the agency said.

Now, the boy’s parents are suing the city of Arlington, which managed the splash pad, alleging Bakari would still be alive had the city properly monitored and chlorinated the fountain’s water.

“Bakari was a loving, energetic, passionate, sweet, beautiful and innocent boy,” his father, Tariq Williams, said during a Monday news conference. “He didn’t deserve to die in this manner.”

Spokespeople with the city of Arlington and Tarrant County Public Health did not immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post early Tuesday.

Bakari’s parents took the boy to the splash pad several times during August and September. Hours after the family’s last trip in early September, his parents said, Bakari was too weak to stand or go to the restroom on his own.

The city’s news release does not mention the exact date the boy last visited the splash pad.

“Nothing could knock him down, so I knew something was wrong,” the boy’s mother, Kayla Mitchell, told reporters while standing at the water park where her toddler last played — and likely contracted the amoeba.

The family took the boy to the hospital on Sept. 5. That same day, authorities shut down the splash pad as they worked to determine the cause of his illness. All other splash pads in the city were also closed. Initially, authorities believed the boy was likely infected at his home or the splash pad.

Days after he died at the hospital, water samples from the splash pad analyzed by the CDC suggested the latter. Bakari likely became infected with the rare amoeba, which enters the body through the nose, at the city-run splash pad, the agency announced.

A city investigation found that Arlington employees failed to properly maintain the water used in its splash pads. Records from two of the city’s four splash pads, including the one where Bakari last played, showed that parks and recreation employees did not consistently record, or in some cases did not conduct, water-quality testing required before the facilities open each day.

As part of their work duties, authorities said, parks and recreation employees were in charge of checking the splash pads’ water chlorination levels. Yet a review of the inspection logs at the Don Misenhimer splash pad found that water chlorination levels were not documented on two of the three dates that Bakari visited the recreational facility. Records from the day after the child last visited show that chlorination levels had fallen below the minimum requirement. That same day, additional chlorine was added to the water system, according to city documentation.

“We have identified gaps in our daily inspection program,” Lemuel Randolph, the deputy city manager, said in a news release. “Those gaps resulted in us not meeting our maintenance standards at our splash pads.”

Following the results of the investigation, Arlington Mayor Jim Ross took responsibility for the boy’s death.

“We screwed up,” Ross told WFAA. “This happened under my watch and the buck stops here.”

On Monday, standing at the splash pad where Bakari played, his family announced they are suing the city for negligence and seeking over $1 million in damages.

“If you’re going to offer this form of public amusement, you’ve got to do it right,” said Stephen Stewart, one of the family’s attorneys. “It’s too serious not to. It’s life and death.”

He added: “A little chlorine, and this child would be here today.”

All of the city’s splash pads will remain closed until the city can fix the “gaps” in the daily inspection programs, Randolph said.