South Carolina resort sued for 4-year-old’s drowning, the third death of a child there in three years

South Carolina resort sued for 4-year-old’s drowning, the third death of a child there in three years

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It was supposed to be a fun getaway for Destiny Morgan and her children: a chance to glide down waterslides, float along the lazy river and enjoy what Morgan thought would be a safe, family-friendly vacation.

Instead, the 2021 trip to Crown Reef Beach Resort and Waterpark in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, abruptly turned to horror when Morgan’s youngest child, 4-year-old Demi Williams, drowned in one of the resort’s pools, which had no lifeguards attending to it and was poorly lit, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

Morgan said a nurse tried to help Demi once she was pulled from the water, and that the nurse said she detected a faint pulse. Other guests at the resort then scrambled to find a defibrillator on the property to resuscitate the little girl, Morgan added. But defibrillators, which may pose a risk of electrocution to rescuers when used on drowning victims, are not required by state law to be placed in swimming areas, and the resort guests could not find any.

Demi is at least the third child to have fatally drowned at the resort between 2018 and 2021, including a 5-year-old boy who drowned days after Demi, news reports and a previous lawsuit show.

Now, Morgan is hoping to change the resort’s safety protocols.

4-year-old Demi Williams. (Courtesy Destiny Morgan)

“Something has to be done,” Morgan said in her first interview since Demi died on April 1, 2021. “I have to do something in honor of my child to make sure that this never happens again.”

The wrongful death lawsuit accuses Crown Reef of creating “unsafe, dangerous, or defective” conditions by failing to have a lifeguard on duty and failing to provide an adequate number of staff members to protect guests, among other allegations. It blames Demi’s death on Crown Reef’s “negligent, reckless, willful” actions.

Crown Reef’s general manager and an attorney for the resort did not respond to multiple emails and voicemails from NBC News. An employee who answered the phone at the resort said she did not have any comment.

Morgan said she and her five children had driven from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, to the resort for the kids’ spring break in 2021. She described Demi as “the sweetest little girl” who was always happy and dancing, and said Demi loved to tell people how pretty they looked or give them other compliments.

The vacation started out well: Demi and her siblings had been having a great time, Morgan said, and Demi was especially fond of the resort’s lazy river, a water ride with a gentle current that guests could go tubing in. On their second evening there, after alternating between sharing a raft with her older brother and her older sister for trips down the lazy river, Demi asked her mom if she could ride in a raft by herself, Morgan said.

The lazy river was only 3 feet deep, according to the lawsuit. Morgan said she asked Demi, who only knew the basics of how to swim, to stand in the lazy river, and because her head was well above the water, she allowed Demi to ride in her own tube behind her sister while Morgan sat in a hot tub that the lazy river snaked around.

But when Demi’s sister got off the ride and Demi was not right behind her, Morgan grew concerned. As she frantically searched the grounds for her daughter, she said she saw another guest pull Demi out of one of the resort’s pools, not breathing. Neither she nor her other children know how Demi got there from the lazy river, but Morgan said she felt it was possible that Demi may have slipped and fallen in.

Multiple guests, including one who was a nurse, started chest compressions on Demi, Morgan said. Morgan said the nurse told her she could detect a pulse, barely, so Morgan and the nurse started yelling for an AED — an automated external defibrillator that delivers an electric shock to the heart to try to restore the heartbeat.

But no one could see an AED nearby, Morgan said, adding that she also could not find any resort staff members or a lifeguard to help her.

“There wasn’t anything that would indicate that they gave a damn about a human life,” she said.

An ambulance rushed Demi to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead that night.

Crown Reef resort Myrtle Beach (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Crown Reef is not required by state law to have lifeguards at its pools or lazy river, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which oversees public swimming facilities in the state. Only waterslides are required to be manned by lifeguards; other water areas must have signage indicating that there is no lifeguard on duty.

The state also does not have any laws requiring AEDs to be placed near swimming areas, the health and environmental department said, noting in an email that “if used improperly on a wet body, the person applying the AED could be at risk of electrical current passing from the victim to the person helping.”

Crown Reef is in good standing with the department, which said that during its most recent unannounced inspection, in July 2023, all pools at the resort were found to have the required signage stating that there weren’t lifeguards. The department said the signs had also been posted during its inspections in 2021 and in 2018, when 7-year-old Malazya Fayall drowned in one of Crown Reef’s pools.

But Morgan and her attorneys, Justin Lovely and Amy Lawrence, said they don’t feel signage is enough. They want their lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages, to result in dramatic safety improvements at the resort.

“More lifeguards, better lighting, more staffing — those are simple solutions that would solve this,” Lovely said. “Close the pool at night if you don’t want to have somebody there at shift.”

Because the resort did not have security cameras in the area, Lawrence said, there is no footage to review that might show how Demi ended up in the pool from the lazy river.

She called Demi’s drowning “needless” and said she is unaware of any changes that the resort has made since Malazya’s death there in 2018.

“There should never have been a second or third death,” Lawrence said.

Malazya’s mother, Latoya Fayall, sued Crown Reef in 2020, blaming her daughter’s death in the lawsuit on an overcrowded pool with no lifeguard and no cameras monitoring the area. She settled in 2023. In court documents, Crown Reef did not admit responsibility for Malazya’s death, instead blaming Malazya’s mother, but confirmed there was no lifeguard and said there were “numerous signs indicating there are no lifeguards on duty in the pool area.”

Both Fayall and Morgan were initially charged in their daughter’s deaths and then ultimately had the charges dropped. Morgan said minutes after the hospital declared her daughter deceased, authorities arrested her on a charge of unlawful neglect of a child, even though she had not been drinking alcohol and had not left her children alone, according to her attorneys. She spent two nights in jail as she dealt with the shock of the loss of her daughter before she was released on bond. Morgan’s charge was finally dismissed last month.

But the loss of Demi has forever changed her family. Morgan said she is haunted by the memory of her older children’s screams when they saw Demi being pulled from the pool.

“I still hear all four of my living kids praying to this day,” she said. “I can hear my oldest daughter saying, ‘Please wake my sister up, God, please wake my sister up.’”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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