Best insurance against drowning

Value of a life vest can't be overstated

POLK COUNTY -- Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death in children ages 14 and under. It can happen in seconds -- one moment the child is bobbing along, and the next he or she is simply gone.

Often there is no warning splash, no cry for help. The child just disappears from sight.

According to a study by the Irvine Health Foundation, a non-profit grant foundation, "Parents whose children have drowned say the day of the tragedy started out just like any other day. No matter how the drowning happened or where it happened -- pool, spa or any body of water -- one thing was the same: The seconds that claimed their child's life slid by silently and without warning, and can never be brought back."

Two-thirds of yearly drowning accidents happen between May and August, and in 1998 Oregon had the 10th-highest drowning death rate in the country.

Most drownings occur in fresh water, mainly because most water activities happen in pools, lakes and rivers. However, experts agree that even though no numbers exist as to how many people swim in the ocean on an annual basis, people are just as likely to drown off the coast as they are on a lake. Possibly even more likely -- because they are unprepared for waves and rip currents.

The most alarming statistic may be that conscientious parents who understand the need for supervision are almost always present when the child drowns. It happens that quickly.

According to the Irvine Institute, "the majority of the parents involved were responsible people who thought it could never happen to their family ... 69 percent of drowning incidents occurred when parental supervision failed and there were no back-up layers in place."

Males are more likely to drown than are females. In 1998 in Oregon, 81 percent of drowning victims were male, and the Willamette River was the single most common drowning site.

Every year officials tell people not to go out onto a lake or river with out a life vest. According to the Oregon Center for Disease Prevention, 85 percent of those who died in boating accidents would have survived had they been wearing one.

Some go so far as to recommend the use of vests while wading in the ocean. A personal floatation device is simple to use and will keep a person's head above water, even if he or she is unconscious.

When purchasing a life vest, make sure that it is Coast Guard-approved. And then wear it -- often a drowning victim had a vest available but never put it on.

The final thing water-safety officials suggest -- and it is the hardest to heed -- don't jump into fast-moving water after someone who has fallen in.

On June 19, 2000, Aleida Gutierrez drowned in the rapids of the lower Lukiamute when she jumped in after her 4-year old daughter, Elizabeth, who also drowned.

Hundreds of stories like that unfold each week across the country. A tragic event is compounded when one person follows another into the water.

Most rescuers will tell you the best thing to do is to try to throw the victim a rope or a floatation device to hold onto until help arrives. The best rule of thumb is to stop, consider your options, then act.

In June of 2004, two boys formerly of Dallas drowned in Watson, Minn. It was the same type of situation. Brandon Dornbusch became trapped after he tried to ride the middle chute of a dam. His brother, Justin, went in after him. Both boys drowned.

It's hard to remember these cautions when someone you love is drowning. It's even harder when you consider that occasionally desperate rescue attempts are successful.

Chad Woods and Mark Fricker saved James Davis from the Pacific Ocean this year. Both men are strong swimmers and they only waded out far enough to throw James a life ring. They thought, then acted -- and one life was saved that day.

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