Valley swimming pools were a fatal attraction last year for 16 youngsters - and nearly so for 28 others - who silently slipped under the water while adults weren't watching.
It's an improvement from 1997, when 22 toddlers and preschoolers lost their lives in water, a leading killer of Arizona kids 4 and younger.
But firefighters and hospitals are bracing for a bad year, alarmed at the near-drownings they've already seen in 1999. With the temperatures climbing and pool season approaching, they wonder how many dead or brain-damaged kids will be in the record books by year's end.
"In the hot season of the year more incidents occur because parents take their eyes off the kids," said Division Chief Bob Khan of the Phoenix Fire Department. "When you take a kid out to go swimming, you don't leave the pool, you don't turn your back, because it only takes a few seconds."
The annual "Just a Few Seconds" campaign kicks off this week, and Valley cities are hosting a variety of free events Saturday to emphasize the importance of watching children around water. The 10-year-old campaign, which was launched in Phoenix after an especially bad summer of drownings and near-drownings, is being used in cities around the country.
The message seems redundant to some Valley dwellers, but its importance cannot be underestimated, said Sandy Raynor, a community education specialist for the Glendale Fire Department.
"We have so many people moving here from other places, moving from homes that don't have pools to homes that do, and we have to continually educate the public," Raynor said. "We have to make sure that not only parents, but also grandparents and baby-sitters are watching the kids all the time."
In 1986, Rex Harrington's baby-sitter did what today is unthinkable: She left the 18-month-old next to the pool and took his 3-year-old sister into the house for a snack. Rex fell in and died.
Rex's father, John Harrington, not only lost his son, but also his marriage, which broke up a year later. The effect on his now 17-year-old daughter, who watched as paramedics pumped water from her little brother's lungs, also was permanent.
"She interpreted that as him throwing up, and even now, she has a morbid fear of herself throwing up," Harrington said.
His way of dealing with the loss of Rex was to help form the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona (www.preventdrowning.com) in 1989. Comprised of parents, health and safety professionals and business leaders, the group pushes education, legislation and product development to prevent drownings and near-drownings.
In his decade of involvement, Harrington has seen many children who are in a vegetative state because their brains were deprived of oxygen while under water for as little as six minutes.
"I consider myself lucky that Rex died rather than having to go through what these kids go through every day," he said. "They are confined to wheelchairs, they have to be fed, but you look in their eyes and you know something's going on. It's sad."
Phoenix firefighters already have responded to 13 near-drownings this year, nine of them children. In Peoria, rescue crews this year have pulled four 1- to 2-year-olds from four different swimming pools. Three of the pools were unfenced.
"If you have children and you have a pool, you've got to have a fence," said Mike Tellef of the Peoria Fire Department. "And you can't turn your back for a second. You shouldn't be taking a nap, you shouldn't be reading a book, because water is a silent killer. There's no noise. They just go to the bottom."
The Mesa Fire Department has had three drowning calls this year, including one from the parent of a 2-year-old who was in a bathtub.
"We're ahead of where we were last year, and we don't like it," said Mesa Battalion Chief Gil Damiani. "I don't know what people are thinking, but their behavior is, 'It's never going to happen to me,' and it does."
It did to Melinda and Michael Baughman, whose son Austin, then 21 months old, fell into the pool at their Phoenix home in November. Melinda Baughman had gone to the grocery store, leaving her husband and older son watching football on television, and the blond baby snoozing in his bed.
While at the store, Baughman was approached by a police officer who broke the bad news: There was an emergency at her home involving the swimming pool.
"I thought, 'I'm going to go home, and they will tell me he's dead, and I didn't even kiss him goodbye,' " the 29-year-old mother said.
By the time Baughman arrived home, the toddler had been flown to a local hospital and paramedics said he was in critical condition. His chances weren't good.
"I never thought this would happen to me," Baughman said. "I'd seen this so many times on TV, and thought I'd taken every precaution there was."
A sliding-glass door leading to the back yard was always locked, and the pool was fenced and had a self-closing and latching gate. This day, though, they somehow were left open, and the little boy, up from his nap and playing in another room, eventually found his way outside.
"My husband went to the kitchen, and there's a window that faces the pool, and he saw him floating face down in the pool," Baughman said.
She won't ever forget Austin's first 12 hours in the hospital, where doctors expressed doubts about his recovery. But slowly, the hazel-eyed child began to improve, and after four days, Austin came home, fully recovered.
"God has something planned for him and gave him a second chance," she said. "His angel was definitely watching over him."
Angels aside, the Baughmans recently moved out of their Phoenix home and into a new one in Peoria that doesn't have a pool.
"It's a relief to all of us that he can be outside and play," Baughman said. "And there's no water around."
Drowning incidents will continue until adults acknowledge it can happen to them and act like it will, said Jane Carrington, a nurse at Desert Samaritan Medical Center in Mesa.
"What's interesting is enough people feel like the flu will happen to them, so they get flu shots. Enough people feel car trouble will happen to them, so they buy insurance," Carrington said. "But you have a kid, and you're never going to lose him because you've done this, this and this. Well, you've been lucky. That's the bottom line."
Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Written By: Janie Magruder
©Copyright 1999 Arizona Republic
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