Swimming Pool Safety: On Very Public Drownings

The terrible discovery that Marie Joseph, a 36-year-old mother of five, had drowned in a public swimming pool in Fall River, Mass., turned all the more macabre with the subsequent revelation that her body—spotted by chance this past Tuesday evening—had rested in the murk at the bottom of the pool for two days, unnoticed by dozens of swimmers or six lifeguards. The scandalous details of the case, from the unacceptable cloudiness of the water to reports that lifeguards ignored warnings from a 9-year-old boy that the woman was in trouble, are of course now driving an all-too-late crackdown. It’s hard to imagine that details emerging from the ongoing investigation will lift any culpability for the tragedy from those responsible for the pool’s safety.

Nevertheless, the sensational, blameworthy details of this case (no doubt soon to become the basis of an episode of Bones, if the show hasn’t already done something similar) should not distract from the more important truth that avoidable drowning deaths happen far too often in all sorts of situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average about 10 people a day die in the U.S. from accidental drownings, and that figure does not include an additional 500 or so drowning deaths from boat-related incidents. About 20 percent of those who drown are under the age of 15, and for every one of those who die, four others receive emergency treatment for drowning.

Most of the time, the people who drown may be alone or beyond the reach of timely help—but not always. A great many die in plain view of friends and family members who do not recognize the true warning signs of imminent drowning.

This subject hits a bit close to home for me. When my father was young, he had an 8-year-old sister who drowned in a busy Boston public pool; no one noticed she was missing until far too late. I also have a friend who lost a 14-year-old nephew during a pool party at a family reunion, and I’ve seen how devastated that left all of them.

So on this Fourth of July weekend, when many of you will be enjoying yourselves in pools and at the beach (as you well should), please do bear in mind that Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning. As Mario Vittone, a Coast Guard safety specialist, described in that excellent and widely viewed blog post last year, the arm-waving, thrashing, water-choked histrionics that signify drowning in movies don’t happen in real life. Rather, because of the Instinctive Drowning Response identified in the 1970s by Francesco A. Pia (“On Scene” magazine, Fall 2006, p. 14 [pdf]), victims are effectively incapable of calling or waving for help or even participating in their own rescue.

As Vittone writes, bystanders should therefore be alert for these other signs of drowning instead:

  • Head low in the water, with mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair hanging over forehead or eyes, with no effort to move it
  • Not using legs – body suspended vertical in water
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Trying to climb a ladder but rarely getting out of the water.

All those distress signs are subtle enough to be easily missed, especially in the tumult of a public pool on a hot summer day. Even a little more attentiveness when others are swimming may help to save lives, however, and prevent holiday fun from turning tragic.

P.S. After you read Vittone’s post on drowning, follow the link at the bottom of the page to its companion piece on The Truth about Cold Water. Contrary to popular wisdom, it’s not hypothermia that usually kills people who take an icy plunge—not unless they’re lucky enough to be wearing a floatation device that keeps them afloat for quite a while. Heart attacks and drowning more often claim them first.

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4 Responses to Swimming Pool Safety: On Very Public Drownings

  1. Monado, FCD says:

    Well, that explains why I’m often asked by life guards, when I’m hanging around in a pool thinking vague thoughts, if I’m OK. They are on the job!

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  3. People should try harder to get educated on pool safety.

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