Four children dead. Dozens of families forever changed. Drownings have taken the lives of one infant and three toddlers in Mesa over the past four days.
Despite the consistent work of East Valley water safety advocates, whose own tragedies have molded their cause, the death toll continues to rise.
And with every new child victim, the people working to stop these nightmares are reminded of their own.
A pool, a bathtub, a bucket or a canal. Parents not watching and babysitters becoming distracted —— the “silent killer” can steal a child forever in only five minutes.
They advocate pool gates, they teach kids about water, they recommend swim classes, but at the end of the day, they can only hope they succeeded. And they can never give up.
BOY SURVIVES COMA
Water safety advocate Shani Hayes has a healthy 6-year-old boy named Zane who likes basketball and soccer.
But nearly three years ago, the Phoenix mom who works in Scottsdale wondered if her son would ever come out of a coma.
She had dropped him off at his day care center before work, where he and eight other children spent the day in the pool.
“But a normal day turned into a tragic event that changed my life forever,” Hayes said.
Three-year-old Zane slipped to the bottom of the pool for four minutes before another child finally noticed him and called for help.
A lifeguard gave Zane CPR, and paramedics rushed him to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The boy spent six days in a coma before his lungs miraculously healed.
“My story is a happy one and the ending is great,” Hayes said. “But I’m hoping my story will alert some other people.”
Hayes said when she heard about the recent rash of child drownings in Mesa, she was “heartbroken” and filled with “pure sadness.”
She said her only hope is that other parents can learn from these incidents before it’s too late. She also volunteers with Phoenix Children’s Hospital and works with media outlets to spread the word.
“When I heard there were four drownings in Mesa, I wondered why?” Hayes said. “But it can happen in any city to anyone.”
Every time John Harrington hears about a child drowning, the gut-wrenching pain of losing his own 18-month-old son comes flooding back — even 20 years later.
“I think about Rex every day,” the 52-year-old chief executive officer says in his office at Banner Baywood Heart Hospital in Mesa.
A 13-year-old babysitter told Harrington she left the toddler in the family’s north Phoenix backyard only for a few minutes on that Saturday afternoon in May while she took his daughter inside to get something to eat, but when they returned Rex was floating motionless in the pool.
A neighbor who heard the teen’s screams grabbed the boy and started CPR, but it was too late to save the blond toddler with big blue eyes.
Two years later, determined to not let Rex’s death be in vain, a heartbroken Harrington agreed to meet with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission officials and state firefighters and emergency workers to come up with ways to combat child drownings.
By 1989, he had helped found the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona, which educates the public on water safety awareness and advocates children’s safety legislation, such as mandating pool barriers.
But after more than 20 years of trying to prevent drownings, a frustrated Harrington still hears about water-related tragedies that leave more parents and grandparents grief-stricken.
“We put a lot of work into (educating the public), and it continues to happen,” he lamented. “People need to hear the message: Children need constant supervision,”
He said latched doors and barriers may buy time in case a child wanders outside, but parents can never assume they can turn their back on their child — even for just a second.
“All of these (drownings) are preventable,” Harrington said.
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Carol Achs becomes more determined to stop drownings with every new death.
“I’m sad that it’s still continuing,” Achs said. “But that just means that we have to work all the harder and try to bring more awareness.”
After she lost her 3-yearold grandson, Weston Letter, in a pool drowning in 1998, the grandmother and dean at Mesa Community College said she knew she had to make a difference and keep Weston’s memory alive through education.
So, along with her daughter, Druann Letter, Achs founded Water Watchers, a group that teaches water safety to firstgraders through school programs and an annual water safety day.
“It takes constant preaching,” Achs said. “It’s like with seat belts and with drugs ... it’s a constant message.”
With each new drowning, Achs said everything about the day Weston drowned comes back.
“It’s something that you never forget,” she said. “And I know what those families are going through.”
But the feelings don’t discourage her. She said they instead motivate her to further the message that parents must maintain eye contact with children around water and install pool gates.
And after nine years of advocating water safety, Achs said she hopes that her efforts — and those of the fire departments and other organizations — are paying off.
She also hopes the efforts will continue.
“We get really busy in our lives and things slip by us,” Achs said. “We can’t let up.”
Water safety tips
• Maintain eye contact with children at all times around any water.
• Assign an adult to keep watch at all times during pool parties.
• Always keep pool gates locked and in good repair.
• Make sure children have no way to climb over or under pool gates.
• Empty all containers that hold water.
• Enroll a child in swim classes.
• Learn CPR
SOURCE: WATER WATCHERS
Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona: www.preventdrownings.com
Water Watchers at Phoenix Children’s Hospital: www.phoenixchildrens.com/about/community-outreach-education/injury-prevention-center.html
Children’s Safety Zone: www.sosnet.com/safety/safety1.html