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Widow sues Regional Recreation Corporation over 2020 drowning

Dumitru Serbulenco poses with his daughter, Zinovia, in an undated family handout image. Serbulenco drowned in a Fort McMurray pool in 2020 after performing repetitive breath-holding exercises while under supervision of lifeguards. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Serbulenco family

The widow of a man who drowned at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre is suing the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo (RRC).

In a statement of claim filed by the family of Dumitru Serbulenco, on Dec. 12, 2020, he was performing repetitive breath-holding exercises, and had asked lifeguards to watch him.

After being unconscious for six minutes, lifeguards rescued the 34-year-old man and administered CPR.

Serbulenco was taken to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, where he died six days later.

His three-year-old daughter Zinovia was with him at the pool that day.

The family’s lawyer said Serbulenco was a stay-at-home dad at the time.

The RRC and four staff members were named in the suit alleging they neglected to adequately supervise and rescue him.

The statement of claim says the operators of the pool failed to develop a policy concerning repetitive breath-holding exercises, citing the Alberta Public Swimming Pools Regulation.

“No family should have to go through such an avoidable loss,” Said Dumitru’s wife, Elena Serbulenco, in a written statement provided by her lawyer. “His pride in fatherhood and marriage was extraordinary.”

None of the claims have been tested in court.

The defendants deny all allegations and dispute the manner in which Dumitru Serbulenco died.

In a statement, the defence argued “They met and exceeded any such duty of care at all material times.”

Neither the lawsuit nor the family statement said why Dumitru Serbulenco was practising the breath-holding exercises.

The dangers of breath-holding exercises

Free divers often use them as training to venture deep under water without a breathing apparatus.

A statement from The Lifesaving Society’s Alberta Public Pool Safety Standards recommends all public aquatic facilities develop a policy to restrict repetitive breath-holding activities.

“Repetitive breath-holding, prolonged breath-holding and prolonged underwater swimming is not permitted by the general public pool user.”

National and provincial standards say repetitive breath-holding may be permitted in public pools, but they must be under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor or coach.

Jonathan Kusyanto, acting executive director of the Lifesaving Society’s Alberta and Northwest Territories branch, said the society provides guidelines but doesn’t have any legislative power.

“The standards are ultimately there to help support and educate pool owners and operators on what they can do to safely operate their facility, but they’re ultimately recommendations.”

The Alberta Public Swimming Pools Regulation states that “owners must develop and maintain written policies and implement plans for those policies in accordance with pool standards.”

These include the safety and supervision of all patrons.

In an email, the RRC declined to comment given the legal process.

“The RRC has co-operated fully with the investigation of this incident.”

The drowning also led to a criminal case against a man who was working as a lifeguard at the time.

In October, RCMP charged 25-year-old Ruslan Atantayev with criminal negligence causing death.

READ MORE: Lifeguard charged in 2020 drowning death

With files from The Canadian Press, first published Dec. 23, 2022.