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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Avoiding disaster

by Mike Masterson | April 13, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

As the season for pools, rivers, creeks and beaches approaches, I feel the need to republish this cautionary piece each spring, as my mind invariably turns to that terrible June afternoon when I turned my back for fewer than three minutes that nearly cost my young daughter's life.

I remind readers in hopes they will realize how even the briefest lapse of attention with a young child around water can suddenly result in catastrophe.

The year was 1980 in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., north of San Diego. We had taken our children--Anna, not quite 3 and Brandon, 10--to a neighboring family's home for a cookout and swim in their backyard pool. It was an idyllic, warm afternoon. The other father was playing water volleyball with his son and Brandon as the mothers prepared dinner in the kitchen.

Anna happily occupied herself about 15 feet from the shallow side of the 28-foot pool. I was taking it all in from a poolside recliner. All was peaceful as the sun set and dusk settled in.

Then came a cry from inside for assistance in carrying dinner to the patio table. I saw Anna was still playing contendedly as the two boys and the other father continued splashing and laughing. There was no indication I should be the least concerned, especially with those three presumed watchdogs only several feet away in chest-deep water.

In the kitchen, I chatted for no more than two minutes, then gathered dinner items to dutifully carry them back to the patio. Stepping outside, I looked at the spot where Anna had been. She was no longer there.

The others were still playing as if nothing was amiss. But I knew something had to be seriously wrong with my daughter out of place.

Setting dishes on the table, I looked more closely. The submerged pool lights had flickered on as I continued scanning every foot of the backyard. Nothing. It was silent except for the boys chattering.

Then my gaze fell on the shallow end, only about three feet deep. I immediately noticed an odd swirling motion at the top of the water and wondered what could be creating it.

It struck me with the force of a sledgehammer. Anna's fingertips barely breaking water. She was submerged and apparently had been since soon after I'd stepped inside. Neither the boys nor the other father noticed her enter the pool.

Leaping into the water I grabbed little Anna around her waist, lifting her while shouting to the others. She was unconscious. I was in full panic mode. The mothers came running as I breathed repeatedly into Anna's mouth then instinctively rolled her limp body over and began steadily pushing against her fragile back, trying to expel the water she'd taken into her lungs.

There was no response for a minute while the wailing grew increasingly louder around me. I kept at my efforts to resuscitate her until, finally, she coughed. Then, from out of her mouth poured what seemed like a pint of water, spilling onto the pool deck around us.

Her coughing continued as smaller amounts of water continued draining from her lungs until she was fully conscious. The adults were laughing, crying and embracing in gratitude that we hadn't lost her. But, oh, we had come so incredibly close.

Within a few minutes, Anna was back to normal and eating at the table alongside us. I continually thanked the God I'd prayed to so fervently only minutes earlier and realized what an irresponsible father I'd been to turn my back even for a couple of minutes on my small child around a swimming pool. It was a hard lesson about assuming anything.

I share this important story on the cusp of summer because, sadly enough, this kind of thing with small children and pools happens nationwide at the rate of more than one a day during the warm months.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports 350 children under age 5 drown in pools each year, mostly in the backyard variety. Of that number, those between 1 and 4 years old have the highest drowning rates. And it's the same story in creeks, ponds and rivers.

Such horror occurs to even the best and most responsible families. Perhaps you read in 2019 about popular country singer Granger Smith and his wife losing their 3-year-old son, River, to drowning in the family's backyard pool.

With swim season approaching, adults, parents, grandparents and others who take children around bodies of water most assuredly risk tragedy if they don't lay aside their cell phones and remain constantly vigilant about every move their young ones make. Drownings most often are silent deaths, making them even more challenging to detect as they are happening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said: "Most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time." That message sure sounded familiar.

And please, caretakers of children, don't ever make the irrevocable and potentially fatal mistake of thinking this can't happen to you.

Now go out and treat everyone you meet exactly how you'd like them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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