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`PROJECT PROM' TURNED FROM A HAVEN TO HORROR

Just as Tanya Nickens hopped into a hot tub to warm up from the swimming pool, someone turned on the whirlpool pump that unleashed 12 tons of deadly suction pressure.

As she helplessly lay pinned at the bottom of the 3-foot-deep hot tub whose drain was left unprotected by a broken grate, Tanya's shocked friends tried in vain to pull her free. Frantically they tried to bail out some of the swirling water with their hands."She's not coming up!" one classmate yelled.

Several minutes elapsed before someone finally reached the emergency shutoff in the basement of the Atlantic Club, where Tanya and her friends were attending a midnight-to-dawn, post-prom party Saturday - alcohol-free and supervised. By then it was too late.

"Everyone's eyes were on Tanya when they pulled her out of the water," said Carla Morris, 17. The girl coughed - "We said, `All right, Tanya, you're going to make it,' and she went back down again."

The 16-year-old girl was placed on life support but died late Saturday at Jersey Shore Medical Center.

Kevin McHugh, the club's general manager, said it was the first time anything has gone wrong in seven years of "Project Prom" parties at the club.

Tanya had missed Friday's junior prom because she forgot to pay a deposit. But she joined 300 high school classmates at the post-prom party.

At about 5 a.m., she hopped out of the swimming pool and into the 10-person hot tub, ducking underwater to douse her hair.

At the same time, someone flipped a nearby switch to turn on the whirlpool pump, which is on a 10-minute timer.

The force of the water was 170 pounds per square inch, flowing through three 1-foot-square openings covered by plastic grates, county public health coordinator Lester Jargowsky said Tuesday.

One grate was broken in several pieces, he said, and the 12 tons of suction, generated by a 10-horsepower motor, pulled Tanya's thighs and buttocks into the drain and pinned her at the bottom of the pool.