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Smugglers’ Notch Resort fined for safety violations after 3-year-old’s drowning in water tank

A green sign for Smuggler' Notch sits outside.
Community News Service
Sophie Acker
Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Cambridge.

After Tate Holtzman went missing at a Smugglers’ Notch Resort day camp last summer, staff discovered a dark, water-filled hole about two feet across in the grass near a picnic table. The realization dawned on them. Lifeguards arrived.

Staff eventually rescued the 3-year-old from the pitch-black hole — a bottleneck entrance to an underground water storage tank that’s 12 by 6 by 6 feet — that afternoon, July 6, 2023. Holtzman died days later in the hospital, his death ruled a drowning.

That tank entrance was supposed to be clearly marked with danger signs and have a secure cover held shut with metal bolts — but the Cambridge resort failed on both fronts, according to a Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in fines this past fall. Employees who worked on the tank told state safety investigators they didn’t remember if the lid ever had the necessary bolts, according to documents obtained by Community News Service through a public records request.

On top of those findings, a lifeguard on duty that day told Community News Service the tank’s rubber lid was lying in the grass beside the hole when staff first responded, and counselors and lifeguards believed it had been left unsecured. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Meanwhile, Holtzman’s parents are talking with a Boston attorney. And the criminal division of the Vermont State Police has been handling an investigation into the boy’s death, said Williston barracks station commander Lt. Cory Lozier over email.

Smugglers’ Notch CEO Lisa Howe, in an interview with Community News Service, said, “We’ll never know why the bolts weren’t in the place where there were holes for the bolts.”

Asked directly whether the lid being unsecured could have resulted in Holtzman’s death, Howe declined to comment, saying she couldn’t speak on a matter that wasn’t legally resolved.

The incident last summer at one of Vermont’s most prominent recreation hotspots — which brands itself as “America’s Family Resort” — continues to spur concern across the state. As of early January, nearly 1,000 people had donated more than $101,000 to the family in an online fundraiser. Close to 500 people had signed a petition started last weekurging the resort to build a memorial to the boy on site.

Workplace safety officials originally fined Smugglers’ Notch $31,253 in October for six violations classified as serious regarding the resort’s management of the water tank, records show. The resort negotiated the fine down to $21,850 on Nov. 16 after replacing the cover, adding signs and creating a plan for employee procedures, according to records. The resort paid the amount, according to the Vermont Department of Labor, which oversees the workplace safety administration.

Last summer Smugglers’ Notch Resort ran camp sessions from mid-June to early August, according to its website, with campers ranging from ages 3 to 17, depending on the program.

The lifeguard who spoke to Community News Service said campers usually came to play in the afternoon at Notchville, a resort waterpark where the incident occurred, and different camp groups would rotate through the facility. The waterpark has three pools in separate tiers. Below the lowest pool sits the splash pad, surrounded by grass.

“The water basin cover is in the middle of the Splash Pad grass lawn area where youths and adults often play or walk. The picnic table that is used for the youths is accessed by walking by or over top of the entrance cover,” according to state records summarizing an interview between safety investigators and a witness to the rescue, whose name was redacted.

The lifeguard who spoke to Community News Service said that on the morning of the incident, they saw someone working in the area close to the tank before campers arrived. Maintenance employees told workplace safety investigators they usually entered the tank twice a year: to fill it up in the spring and to drain it in the fall, records show.

Someone who oversees aquatics maintenance staff, whose name was redacted in records, told state investigators he didn’t know why the cover to the tank wasn’t secured, according to records.

Investigators wrote that another member of the maintenance team, who usually enters the tank and was the last to enter in the spring, “did not recall the water basin cover ever having had anchor bolts to hold it down,” according to state records, which redacted that staff member’s name, too. That second employee told investigators the cover fit tightly, records show.

Howe, the Smugglers’ Notch CEO, declined to respond to whether resort maintenance staff made mistakes.

Community News Service left a voice message for Tate Holtzman’s parents, Zachary and Jennifer Holtzman, who live in Vermont, on a number listed for the latter. Staff from Boston law firm Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow responded to that message, saying the firm would speak on the family’s behalf. One of the firm’s attorneys, Jennifer Denker, declined to comment. According to the firm’s website, Denker handles cases dealing with wrongful death claims, among other areas of law.

Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman declined to comment on the investigation findings until they are made public.

According to the state’s workplace safety investigation, the water tank is considered a “permit confined space.” Officials fined Smugglers’ Notch because, according to the investigators, the resort has allowed employees to “enter the tank twice annually,” records say, while failing to identify the tank as such a space — violating every occupational safety requirement for working in the space.

According to workplace safety investigators, Smugglers’ Notch failed to: evaluate the resort for permit-confined spaces; post clear danger signage or equally effective notices about the space; certify the tank was safe before allowing employees to enter; have a safe practice procedure for employees entering the tank; provide employees entry permits into the space; and provide employee training on the existence of the space and how to enter it.

“The fact that we had not evaluated the space previously as a (permit) confined space, and that we should have, is just mind boggling,” said Howe, who according to the Smugglers’ Notch website has worked for more than 20 years at the resort that her father, Bill Stritzler, has owned since 1996.

She called the lack of procedure “inconceivable.”

While the safety inspection was in progress, noticeable and clear danger signage was posted above the tank, according to state investigation records.

Howe said resort procedures have changed since Holtzman’s death. The tank he fell into is the only one like it, and the nearby splash pad area was closed for the rest of the season, she said.

Howe said the resort has plans to redesign the splash pad area but there isn’t a timeline to do so. The online petition to build a memorial for Holtzman calls for the resort to replace the splash pad with a garden.

A locked fence now surrounds the area around the hole, Howe said. The rubber lid that once covered the tank entrance has been replaced with a metal one that would take multiple people or heavy machinery to lift, and below that a new grate would stop a person from falling in, even if the lid was off, she said.

Howe said improving safety is an ongoing effort at the resort, and employees have avenues to anonymously report concerns to management. Following the incident last summer, she said, the resort hired a company to evaluate potential safety hazards and recommend improvements.

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

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