SPRING HILL — Some teenagers used it as a sandy football field. Younger children thought of it as their own backyard beach. Others were content to dig holes, ride their bikes or find any number of enterprising activities on the scrubby bottom.
Set in the heart of the neighborhood and haphazardly free of clutter, the nearly 230,000-square-foot retention area has been a virtual field of opportunity for the kids of the new Sterling Hill development.
"We thought it was the perfect place for the kids to play," said Lori Szmuc, who lives in the neighborhood with her husband and two young daughters. "But we're done. They're not going in there anymore."
Residents of Sterling Hill were still reeling Monday, two days after an 11-year-old girl was killed while digging tunnels in the sand of the retention area in the 4200 block of Braemere Drive, near the intersection of Barclay Avenue and Elgin Boulevard. Authorities said one of the tunnels collapsed on Brittany Saavedra, burying her head in the sand about 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Emergency workers were able to pull Brittany from a hole almost 4 feet deep, but she was unresponsive and wasn't breathing, according to a report from the Hernando Sheriff's Office. Brittany was taken to Oak Hill Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The death of Brittany, a fifth-grader at J.D. Floyd Elementary School in Spring Hill, came as a shock to many parents in the neighborhood who considered the retention area — and others throughout the subdivision — as something of an unofficial playground.
"The big kids go there and play flag football," said Gina Perret, who has a 4-year-old son and infant daughter. "But many of the younger kids don't realize how soft that sand is."
Brittany's death was at least the second time in six months that a child was buried in sand while horsing around in the Sterling Hill development. A 12-year-old boy was trapped the day before Thanksgiving when a concrete culvert hanging over a sandy pit snapped and pinned him from about mid-calf up. Emergency responders dug him out of the sand after an hour, and the boy wasn't seriously injured.
On Sunday, Mitchell Saavedra, Brittany's father, called on local officials to do something to make the retention areas — essentially large drainage ponds — safer for neighborhood children.
"We've got to make these things safer," he said. "This isn't the first time this has happened."
But Hernando officials said Monday the retention area, which is owned and maintained by the Sterling Hill Community Development District, had already met the county's safety standards.
Hernando requires that most retention areas have a ratio of 4 feet of horizontal slope for every vertical foot of depth. So, for example, a 3-foot-deep pond would be required to have sloping angles of about 12 feet. Retention areas that do not meet those standards are required to be fenced and have warning signs posted around the perimeter, said Gregg Sutton, an assistant engineer in the Hernando Department of Public Works.
The retention area in Sterling Hill has a sloping angle of about 10 feet for every vertical foot, Sutton said, and was not required to be fenced.
"The county approved that design and inspected the pond after it was constructed … to make sure it complied with the standard," Sutton said. "It's a tragedy, but those ponds are really not playgrounds."
Pete Williams, director of management services for Rizzetta and Co., which manages Sterling Hill, said the company still planned to explore ways to make the retention pond safer for nearby residents.
"We're all looking for answers," Williams said. "I think it would be impossible to experience this sort of tragedy and not see if there's something to prevent this from happening again, if that's possible."
At J.D. Floyd Elementary on Monday, the school brought in a couple of extra counselors to talk with Brittany's classmates and friends. Most children had learned of Brittany's death through word of mouth or media accounts, said principal Marcia Austin.
"Losing any child at this age is a difficult thing," Austin said. "Not just for the parents, but for the school."
Meanwhile, Mitchell Saavedra was trying to cope Monday with the loss of his youngest daughter. He and his wife, Jeanette, spent much of the morning arranging for Brittany's funeral and taking dozens of phone calls from concerned family members and friends.
"This has been awfully hard on us," Saavedra said. "For a man who likes to keep life simple, it is a little overwhelming. But we appreciate everything."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.