Sun-Sentinel - October 16, 2005

By Michael Mayo, News Columnist

The only thing worse than a tragedy is an avoidable tragedy. The Oct. 5 lightning death of Monarch High School football player Schaffner Noel keeps looking more like a tragedy that could have been prevented.

Broward County public schools do not have lightning warning systems.

Coconut Creek city parks do.

Last week, I spoke to three people who say they heard the high-pitched airhorns of the Thor Guard system go off at parks near the school minutes before the fast-gathering storm struck.

The Thor Guard system at Sabal Pines Park is about a mile east of the high school. On the afternoon of Oct. 5, Luc Audeoud of Coconut Creek took his three children to the park to play.

But as soon as they arrived, sometime between 5-5:30 p.m., he said the Thor Guard horn went off.

"We could see the storm coming, but it wasn't raining and it wasn't even overcast above us," said Audeoud, 27. "We were hoping to fit in a half hour of play, but when we heard the horn, I said, `Kids, it looks like we'll have to go to the mall.'"

Audeoud said he was confused because the storm seemed far away, but the French native doesn't take chances with lightning. He said the park staff began evacuating the soccer and baseball fields when the horn sounded.

The Thor Guard system at another city playground, Cypress Park, is about two miles south of the school. On Oct. 5, Neil Eichelbaum was swimming at the Township Community Aquatic Center outdoor pool across the street when he heard the warning horn go off.

"I got out of the pool because of the siren," said Eichelbaum, a Miami-Dade County high school teacher who trains daily and competes in the Senior Olympics. He said a few minutes later, about 5:30 p.m., he saw lightning flashes in the distance.

At the high school, players and spectators didn't start leaving the field until a lightning bolt struck about 5:30 p.m., according to witnesses. While they were evacuating a second bolt struck, killing Noel, 15, and injuring a few others.

Phil Warkentien, a lifeguard at the Township pool, said he "definitely heard Thor Guards" that day, although he couldn't pinpoint the exact time or location. He said he sometimes hears them go off at various parks near the pool.

Warkentien is familiar with the Thor Guard system because he used to work at two city pools in Sunrise equipped with them. He said he liked the system because it gave early warnings.

"I remember it would be a perfectly nice day and then we'd see the color changing on the ion thing on the Thor Guard," he said. "We'd clear the pool, the horn would go off and 20 minutes later there'd be a storm."

Although the system might sound for a storm that stayed clear of the area, he said it never failed to go off.

Broward school officials say schools do not have the Thor Guard system because it is unreliable and gives off too many false positives.

But as Chuck Vones, assistant director for Pembroke Pines parks, previously said, "I'd rather be inconvenienced 100 times than be wrong once."

I suspect the real problem is the system's expense, about $5,500 each, and not false positives. Equipping every public school would cost about
$1.3 million.

It might be an overreaction to buy Thor Guards for elementary and middle schools, given the limited outdoor activities there. But equipping all 30 public high schools seems prudent, especially since it would only cost about $165,000.

Surely the School Board has that lying around in spare change somewhere.

If not, individual schools could pay for them from bake sales and fund-raisers.

"This is supposed to be the lightning capital of the United States,"
said John Galko, 70, who lives near George Gerber Park in Coconut Creek and said he hears the Thor Guard there go off "all the time." "If a park playground can have it, why can't a high school football field?"

It's a question the School Board needs to address. For Schaffner Noel, the answer will come too late.

Michael Mayo can be reached at mmayo@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4508
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