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Water invites tragedy

Many out for fun, unaware of danger.

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A dozen or so people drown each year in the county's rivers and lakes - a seemingly small number considering there are six lakes, two rivers and nearly half a year to enjoy them.

But bring back just one and Lisa Bimuller would have a fiance and her 2-year-old daughter Taylor would have a daddy.

"The people that have drowned ... are not unimportant people," Bimuller said. "They are someone's spouse, friend, parent or loved one.

"Their death should not be over looked or accepted as something that just happens."

But, except for a circle of family and friends, Mike Mann's death almost was. The fact that he drowned - just 24, newly engaged, a father - drew little more than one paragraph in the newspaper. It likely received the same or less attention on the 5 o'clock news.

So, Bimuller has been trying to spread the word.

But even as she does, there were three more drownings on Maricopa County waterways during the Memorial Day weekend - one each at Canyon and Saguaro lakes and one at the Salt River. A fourth person drowned in the Salt River within the Phoenix city limits.

"More people need to know the dangers," said Bimuller, 23, a waitress living in Prescott Valley. "They also need to know that it could happen to them or someone they love."

Each year, as the temperatures start to climb, thousands of people like Mike Mann head to one of the county's rivers or lakes. They come to boat, swim and tube away the sweltering heat - many times with beer and almost always with the confidence that they can traverse the waters under any circumstance.

"People overextend themselves, They over-recreate," said Lt. Ron Stoner, with the Maricopa Sheriff's Office lake patrol. "Swimming across the current, they get tired, exhausted."

Five have already drowned this year, according to county records Countless others will nearly drown each year.

Most of the victims will be swimmers, but a few tubers like Mann also become a drowning statistic.

On July 2, Mann was spending the day with a few friends at the Salt River. Bimuller, who was living in Tempe with the couple's daughter, didn't go to the river that day.

Mann was floating along when he spotted another tuber in distress Bimuller said.

"He went to help her, and when he got off his tube, his foot got stuck," she said.

"Eight people were trying to help but they couldn't because of the rapids. Finally, after several minutes they got a rope and tied it to a tree and pulled him out."

But Mann had already died.

The strength of the current simply overwhelms people, Stoner said. Even experienced swimmers can under estimate its power.

"People look at water as water and they don't look at the hydrodynamics of it," Stoner said.

In 1995, for instance, 12 swimmers and two tubers drowned in county waterways - the most since 1990. Six others died that year in water related accidents.

Stoner said a common problem is that swimmers get tired and have difficulty swimming.

Tubers also can have problems when they decide to tie their tubes together. If they are not tied tight enough, the slack gets caught on objects in the river and the tubes overturn.

If swimmers or tubers have been drinking alcohol, the dangers just grow, Stoner said.

Swimmers and tubers may not be paying attention to how much they are consuming. And even if they do people who are underwater will not perspire, or "sweat off" the alcohol as quickly as someone working outside in the yard, he said.

Others, meanwhile, unknowingly create problems when they wade into the waters wearing long pants and tennis shoes or boots instead of a swimsuit. The clothing quickly weighs them down.

"You're inviting danger," Stoner said. "You pick up a lot of weight on your legs that will exhaust you faster."

Surprisingly, some people don't know how to swim but head for the water anyway. During the Memorial Day holiday weekend, 15-year-old Ishmael Sanchez, who authorities said didn't swim, was in the Salt River near Blue Point Bridge and then disappeared. His body was recovered about three hours later.

It's not as easy to explain Mann's death.

The young man was an experienced swimmer, and although he had had a few beers, sheriff's authorities say he wasn't legally drunk.

He was just out to enjoy a day at the river with friends. But in a split second, he was pulled under and lost his life.

Bimuller still wonders about what happened to the tuber Mann was trying to help that day.

"She just kind of disappeared, she just floated away," Bimuller said. "She Lived."

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Written by: Susie Steckner
©Copyright 1999 Arizona Republic

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