A Drowning Event at POYC



One of the reasons that I asked Gary Guss to publish on our Web Page the Slate Magazine article about the real signs of drowning was that we had a drowning event at the Club many years ago that matched what was stated in the article. Drowning that doesn’t look like Drowning  I have to say that when I read the article and thought back on the event, it made me very sick and upset.  We must improve our knowledge so that there is never a repeat of that event.

Many years ago Larry Caillouet and I invited a sizable number of international students to the Lake.  Larry was in charge of international students at Western.  When they first arrived, we had them go over to the Quarry area across the Lake (otherwise affectionately known as “skin beach”).  When they had finished with their meal, many of them came over to the Club.   Several Club members had volunteered to take them sailing and had already launched their boats.  Not surprisingly, I was still fiddling with Orion in our regular lot trying to get her ready to launch.  The students had already gone down to the Lake and started swimming.

Suddenly a girl ran up the path and called out, “He won’t come up!”  I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.  Then Larry’s wife, Dianne, came up the path and said that a student may have drowned.  I jumped off Orion and started running down the path, shedding clothes as I ran.  When I got to the Lake I asked where the student had gone down.  Several people pointed to the middle of the area between our old wooden docks.  I immediately jumped in and swam out to that area and started diving.  I was in a lot better shape back then, but it was still very difficult to keep diving down about 10 feet repeatedly.  Soon John O’Connor, who was considerably older than I was joined me.  I told John, “You stop.  We can only afford one drowning today.”  The Lake bottom slopped away sharply from the shore.  I thought that maybe his body had drifted deeper than we could dive.

John’s cruiser was tied to the outer dock bow in.  I suggested that we back his boat away from the dock and use his Danforth anchor to drag for the student’s body.  And that is what we did, over and over without any success.

About this time four husky guys showed up.  I thought that they might be from the rescue squad.  Since that time I have been told that our own Troy Monroe was one of these guys.  One of the fellows had, or was handed a diving mask.  Fortunately, he did not ask where the student went down.  He just jumped into the water right next to the dock.  And there was the student.  The student was pulled out and some attempt at CPR was made.  I seem to remember that this was before the advent of modern CPR.  About this time the EMTs showed up and determined that that the student was dead.

Later there was a memorial service at the Baptist Student Union.  Because the young man was from India, John O’Connor and I made sure that there were Muslim and Hindu prayers as well as Christian.  Right before the service I was told that the student didn’t drown.  That he had a brain aneurism that burst.  That made us feel a little better at the time, but now that I have read the Slate Magazine article, I am convinced that he really did drown.

We were told that he was considered to be a good swimmer.  He apparently thrashed around just a very little and then went under with his hand sticking out of the water.  He did not make any sounds.  Once he went under, he did not resurface.  His friends thought he was pretending because he did not call for help or thrash around more.  But now that you have read the Slate Magazine article, you, like me, know exactly what happened.  It truly makes me upset and sad to think that this promising young man lost his life because no one knew what drowning really looked like.  We were expecting the movie or cartoon version.  Now we do know and we should spread the word and look for the real signs so that we can stop these unnecessary, tragic deaths.


Here’s the Slate article..

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning from Slate Magazine

May 26 2017 12:25 PM

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

In 10 percent of drownings, adults are nearby but have no idea the victim is dying. Here’s what to look for.

By Mario Vittone


A lifeguard keeps watch on opening day of the newly renovated McCarren Park Pool on June 28, 2012, in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

How to Prevent Drowning

This Memorial Day weekend marks the start of another—hopefully safe—swimming season. In 2013, Mario Vittone dispelled a popular myth about how to tell when someone is struggling in the water. The original article is reprinted below.

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine; what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their 9-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know—from 50 feet away—what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children, ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents)—of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. According to the CDC, in 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch the child do it, having no idea it is happening. Drowning does not look like drowning—Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this:

“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble—they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the Instinctive Drowning Response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long—but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

Head low in the water, mouth at water level

Head tilted back with mouth open

Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus

Eyes closed

Hair over forehead or eyes

Not using legs—vertical

Hyperventilating or gasping

Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway

Trying to roll over on the back

Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK—don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer at all—they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents—children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

What Does Drowning Look Like?

How to Prevent Drowning

(See a video of the Instinctive Drowning Response.)

This article is reprinted from Mario Vittone’s blog. Join him on Facebook.

Mario Vittone recently retired from the Coast Guard. He’s a trained rescue swimmer and boat captain who lives with his family in coastal Virginia.




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