How could a drowned swimmer's body have laid at the bottom of a public pool for more than two days - surrounded by other swimmers - without someone noticing? That's the question Benjamin Radford, a writer for Discovery News, attempts to answer in an online piece exploring the physics of water reflection in the wake of the bizarre drowning in Veteran's Memorial Pool in Fall River, Mass., last week. Marie Joseph, 36, drowned on June 26 but was not discovered until early June 29 by trespassers who snuck into the pool overnight.
"Water is, of course, highly reflective, scattering both direct sunlight and ambient reflected light from the sky," Radford wrote. "When water is calm, it can create a mirror-like image, preventing anything below the surface from being seen (think of photographs of scenic mountains reflected in lakes). But when the water surface is continuously disturbed - as it is in a public pool where dozens of people are swimming and splashing - the reflection is broken up into tens (or hundreds) of thousands of individual images or light spots, each reflecting the blinding sun for a split-second, at countless different angles. This phenomenon, called sun glitter, can dramatically reduce visibility of objects in water.
"Even if one of the six lifeguards on duty had seen Joseph from above, this continual movement of the water's surface gives the illusion of movement below. A stationary sunken object can look like it's moving on its own, because the light waves carrying the image to our eyes are themselves moving. Our brains unconsciously compensate for this illusion when we recognize objects (such as rocks or toys) as inanimate, but if we glance at a person below the surface of the water, we are unlikely to notice that they are not moving."
Nonetheless, state investigators have focused their efforts on those six lifeguards and whether they shirked their responsibilities. A 9-year-old boy reportedly told two of the lifeguards that he saw Joseph sink in what officials have called "murky and cloudy" water, and the lifeguards are accused of not following rules requiring them to immediately clear the pool, call 911 and, if necessary, get in the water and search. "He did tell two lifeguards," Danyelle Hunt, the boy's mother, told the Boston Herald. "One said she was on break and had to leave, and the other told him they were going to do a pool check. But he told me they never did."
"I think the whole set of facts is something we find disturbing," State Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward M. Lambert Jr. told Herald reporter Richard Weir earlier this week. The DCR runs the pool, and Lambert said he was checking records to determine if the lifeguards were properly certified and why the pool was allowed to open with such murky water. DCR spokeswoman Catherine Williams added on Tuesday that no date has been set for reopening the Fall River pool or for the release of the agency's findings. The six lifeguards on duty June 26 have not returned to work or been reassigned.
Radford claims there are two other forensic reasons why Joseph's body was not discovered sooner. "Since it was in chlorinated water, decomposition was delayed, and the water masked the smell of bodily decay," he wrote. "Furthermore, the body was not at the surface where it would be seen, but instead at the bottom of the pool. Drowning victims often sink immediately upon death and do not float to the surface until decomposition begins, as happened in this case. So why didn't anyone see Joseph at the bottom of the pool? The answer is that the pool water was cloudy, and had been since the facility opened on June 25. Tests conducted at the pool revealed that the visibility was less than four feet. The Veteran's Memorial Pool is 12 feet at the deep end, and that's apparently where Joseph was last seen and drowned."