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The life saver

Apr. 10, 2003

Bob Khan's mission - and
burden - is to keep kids
from drowning

As cameras roll, Bob Khan stands straight and looks directly into the lens, about to tell you a story that will break your heart. He knows this because it is a story that breaks his own heart, the one he wears on his sleeve.

Khan, an assistant chief for the Phoenix Fire Department, has become the community representative for tragedy. He comes before the cameras to tell us how a 2-year-old boy just drowned in a murky pool, its gate inexplicably propped open with a cinder block.

His voice is filled with our concern. His eyes reflect our pain.
Michael Chow/ The Arizona Republic

Phoenix Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan has been instrumental in educating the public about pool safety.

As a department spokesman, Khan also is there when fire consumes an apartment building or when a neighborhood is threatened by a chemical spill. But it's the "water incidents," the drownings and near-drownings, that Khan takes personally, as if each is a reminder that no matter how much has been accomplished, there is more to do.

He speaks at events, club meetings or wherever there is a crowd willing to listen. It's an important position in Phoenix as hot, dry desert air makes pools the most popular escape. And with the start of pool season upon the Valley, the (sad) odds are that you will be seeing more of Khan on TV.

"When he gets home, I can see it in his eyes if he's been out on a bad call," says Peggy Khan, his wife of 13 years. "I don't even need to ask. I need to be quiet for as long as it takes. It's like detox. He needs to get past it."

It wasn't always like this. When Khan joined the Phoenix Fire Department in 1982 after earning a bachelor's degree in communications from Arizona State University, he was just another "booter," a rookie on the front line.

He vaguely recalls the first child drowning to which he responded. It was at a hotel or apartment complex on Van Buren Street, one of the many nondescript units that lined the street two decades ago. A young boy, 6 or 7, had been spotted at the bottom of the pool. It was during what may have been a party attended by several adults, none of whom noticed when a youngster slipped silently beneath the surface.

"I remember thinking that it shouldn't have happened," Khan, 44, says. "Not with so many people around. But we were there to do a job, and that's what we did. But he'd been under too long for us to do anything."

There was nothing then to suggest he'd become a crusader for drowning prevention, the poster boy for pool safety. Even Khan is surprised at what he's become, saying: "It just happened. Maybe a clinical psychologist can figure it out, but I can't."

Khan's years on the job run together, so many events they tend to erase one another. Khan remembers the call when he fell into a fiery basement and ran out of air just as fellow firefighters got a ladder down to him. But until a former fire captain reminds him, he'd forgotten the day he was blown 20 feet in the air by a backdraft.

What he does not forget is the compilation of tragedy, how firefighters are usually needed when something is horribly wrong.

"You're responding on somebody's absolute worst day," Khan says. "And when it's busy, you can be responding to 10 people suffering 10 worst days. If anything, being a firefighters has taught me to love life."
Christine Keith/The Arizona Republic

Khan, his wife, Peggy, and their 2-year-old daughter, Gracie, enjoy a morning walk around their Phoenix neighborhood.

That kind of emotional toll is difficult for anyone to withstand, let alone someone who easily identifies with the other people.

"You walked into a room where everybody's laughing and you knew Bob was in there," says Billy Shields, a Phoenix firefighter who met Khan on the job and has known him more than 20 years. "Firefighters went to him when they needed someone to listen. He complained to me once that with all these people coming to him, he never had time to himself. I said, 'Bob, that's what happens when you're everybody's best friend.' "

Khan's empathy made him a natural choice when Fire Chief Alan Brunacini needed to tab a new head of media relations. Brunacini wanted someone not only who knew what it was like to be on the front line, but who could convey the emotions felt by all, whether they were wearing turnouts or not.

"Listening to Bobby at a scene, you know he feels for what's happening," Brunacini says. "People identify with him right away. He's not trying to spin anything, he's putting it right out there. And he's not afraid to show how he's feeling."

When Khan was on the front lines, responding to dozens of calls a day, however, there was no time for emotions to develop. The bond between victim and firefighter lasted an hour or two at most, and the relationship rarely went beyond name and address.

That changed in 1996 when Khan assumed the mantle of public information officer. His responsibilities didn't end at the scene, especially when the drowning of a child was involved. He came to know families affected by the tragedies, becoming counselor and confidant for many.

"As Bob became more involved, these events affected him in a much deeper capacity," says Capt. Mark Angle, a longtime friend of Khan who succeeded him as head of the public information office.

"It's not surprising he's become so impassioned with drowning awareness. Over the years, he's probably responded to over 100 kids who have drowned. It starts wearing on you, and Bob has chosen to shoulder that."

In 2001, as Khan was promoted to assistant chief, he had the chance to step away from the limelight, delegating the on-camera responsibilities to Angle. But Brunacini and the rest of the brass realized Khan had connected with the community. Residents had come to trust him, and it was decided Khan would remain as spokesman for most incidents, and certainly for child drownings.

His goal, as always, is a year in which no child drowns, an effort foiled 20 days into 2003 when Thomas Allen, 2, died in a backyard pool.

Each drowning call haunts him. Sometimes, Khan says, he will lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling fan, wondering what it takes to get parents to close a gate. Or lock a door. Or even turn around at the right moment.

"Every time a child drowns, Bob is on TV again telling you what you need to do to make sure it will never happen again," Angle says. "But like clockwork, it does happen. You can see how he takes it personally, but the worst thing he could do is throw up his hands and give up. Bob is not about to do that."

The years went by and the calls mounted. Again and again Khan would be summoned to another drowning scene not long after firefighters attempted to breathe life into another 3-year-old who had wandered into the belly of what he still calls "the backyard monster."

No matter how many times he'd been here before, Khan could not get over how "viable" the young victim would look.

"No fire, no train accident," Khan says. "They look fine. But at some point, something happened that could have changed had someone made a minimal effort to save a life."

While every call hit him hard, one pierced Khan through and through, and he was not even on the scene.

In May 1998, 3-year-old Weston Letter of Gilbert drowned. Weston was the son of a Tempe firefighter, a reminder to Khan that no one is exempt from tragedy.

He called the Letter family to express his condolences. It was the start of a close friendship that revived Khan's sympathy for the families of victims.

DruAnn Letter, Weston's mother, says that while some are quick to point fingers after a drowning, Khan puts the family first because he understands their pain.

"His compassion is amazing," Letter says. "You can see he's in pain, you can even see his frustration because this is a preventable accident. By blaming someone, you can easily ruin another life. Bob makes sure not to do that, even though you know each drowning takes a toll on him. I don't know how he does it."

Khan's empathy grew still deeper after Feb. 19, 2002, when he first held his adopted daughter, Gracie Mei Khan, a Chinese orphan named after Khan's mom, who died in 1977 from cancer.

"I'd always felt for parents," Khan says. "But now when I hear them say, 'I'd gladly trade my life for my child,' I have a true understanding for that. Their lives are wrecked. They recover somewhat, but part of them dies."

As Gracie has reinvigorated Khan's days - "I get to see life again through a 2-year-old's eyes, and it's incredible" - she has re-energized his commitment to the prevention of childhood drownings.

He doesn't care how often people are subjected to lines like "Just a few seconds" or "Watch your kids around water." The more dogmatic, the better. At the dozens of meetings and public appearances he makes each summer, he hopes one day his words will echo in the minds of moms and dads who hear the phone ring and decide to ignore it as their kids play near the pool.

Yet Khan knows a drowning-free year will never occur in an imperfect world, not when all it takes is an almost imperceptible mistake.

"It's frustrating knowing that," Khan says. "And each drowning saddens me. But I'm not going to let it ruin me, not when there's so much work to do."

Asked if he's ever thought about the children saved because of the pool-safety campaign, Khan pauses, eyes straight ahead. A memory bobs to the surface.

He was having lunch at restaurant, finishing up when a stranger, recognizing Khan, pulled up a chair. The man told him that not long ago, he had been at a community pool and was watching a father playing with his young son on the steps. When the dad turned his back, distracted by something, the man remembered Khan and his awareness campaign. And he didn't take his eyes off that young boy, whose head slipped beneath the water.

The man jogged over, reached below the surface and hoisted the boy up so quickly the father never realized what had happened.

"So I thought you should know you saved at least one boy," the man said, getting up from his seat. "I thought you should know that."

Khan stops, realizing how that brief encounter is as vivid as any memory he has.

"You know, there are kids out there we've saved," he says. "I'll never know their names. But . . . there's a boy in junior high right now who otherwise wouldn't be around. And maybe he'll grow up to be a doctor. Or a journalist. Or even a firefighter."

In just a few seconds, it's apparent the difference the program has made. If it's saved one child or 100, the impact, Khan knows, is immeasurable, as is the gap between a lifetime of joy and one of sorrow.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
By Scott Craven
Copyright 2003 Arizona Republic

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