May 022012

Months after her 4-year-old son’s drowning last July, Brooke Thomas has reviewed every possible detail from the afternoon of July 22.

It had been a happy day, her oldest son’s seventh birthday, spent playing in a neighbor’s pool for nearly three hours. When it came time to leave, Brooke turned to put away her children’s floaties and other things. When she looked back, her younger son, Charles “Maverick,” was nowhere to be seen.

In the frantic moments that she and others searched the house and pool for Maverick, they had somehow missed seeing him at the bottom of the pool, obstructed by shadows from nearby palm trees. A waterfall feature was another distraction. The bottom of the pool was covered with tiles, which had turned the water from clear to something of a deep-colored lagoon by afternoon.

Furthermore, Maverick’s swim trunks — navy blue with a Hawaiian pattern — had helped camouflage him underwater. By the time someone spotted him from the other side of the pool, it was too late.

Since the drowning, Thomas has returned to the pool to take pictures of the water as it shifted colors later in the afternoon. What if Maverick, who had taken some recreational swim classes, had been taught to float on his back or tread water? The incident was nothing like she had seen of fictional drownings on television: Maverick had not flailed or screamed. They believe he must have been reaching for a toy, then silently slipped beneath the water’s surface.

Although Maverick died in the summer, the Thomas family wants to deliver a message: A child can drown any time of the year.

“Any measure we could have taken, we took. And yet it still happened,” Thomas said. “If it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody.”
A year-round hazard

A high risk of drowning exists year-round in Arizona, said Lori Schmidt, president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona. But there tend to be different reasons between summer and winter.

“In the summer months, it tends to be a supervision issue,” Schmidt said. Often, parents or other adults are distracted and children are left near the water without “eye-to-eye supervision.”

In the winter months, drownings tend to be the result of barrier issues. The pool may not be protected by a fence or a cover, or existing ones are in disrepair. Children, ever drawn to small spaces, have been known to crawl through doggy doors.

“We’re not really expecting kids in the water,” Schmidt said. “We had no inkling that the child would even be near the water.”

The winter months also are when visitors flock to Arizona, descending upon homes that may not be properly equipped for young children. What Valley residents consider to be sweater weather could be a perfect poolside day for guests.

“People come visiting and think, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful here.’ They don’t have any problems running around in flip-flops and sundresses,” Schmidt said. “Especially kids. Kids don’t really care if it’s cold or not. They’re getting in the water.”

Pools are not the only source of danger, she added. Hot tubs, canals, bathtubs and just about anything that can hold rainwater around the house should be monitored, fenced or emptied.

“Anything that holds an inch of water can be a water hazard,” she said.
Numbers, prevention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, drownings are the leading cause of injury and death for children ages 1 to 4.

Last year, Maricopa County had 49 drownings. Of those deaths, 16 were of children, and the majority occurred by May.

“We had a horrible spring,” Schmidt said. “We were on pace to double, if not triple, our drowning deaths (in Maricopa County).”

In 2010, there were 48 drownings in Maricopa County; 20 of those were children. Although child drownings decreased, the total number of “water-related incidents,” including near drownings, increased last year to 179 from 140.

“We can prevent drowning,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to protect your families no matter what time of year.”

Thomas said her devoutly religious family can move on by using their experience to help prevent other families from suffering the same grief. They founded the Maverick Movement, a group that aims to raise awareness about water safety.

“It would be really easy for me to be done with the pool, to be an overbearing mom,” Thomas said.

On the contrary, the rest of her family, including her two other children, returned to the pool within days.

“That was important to us, because we wanted them to see that you can have fun in the water, that it’s good for you and good exercise,” she said. “We wanted them to remember the fun memories of that day.”

The memories include the way Maverick would jump into her arms in the pool and snuggle up to her face until their noses were touching.

“I love you, Mommy,” he would say.

Without missing a beat, she would respond: “I love you, too, Maverick.”

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