Summer danger

Rip tides, ignorance, and kids unattended can lead to tragedy

How a trip to the pool with my son saved a teen from drowning

By John Toth

It didn’t take long for the riptide at San Luis Pass to claim its first summer season victims. Memorial Day weekend arrived, and a father and son drowned, pulled under by the strong currents of the Gulf of Mexico.

Those of us who have lived in Brazoria County for a long time know better than to go swimming in an area that claims numerous lives each year. Stories have been written about drownings in the San Luis Pass area for as long as I can remember.

I had the misfortune to write a lot of them for the Houston Chronicle from 1983 to 1995, when I worked for that paper and covered events going on in this county. My heart always went out to the families who lost loved ones. It seems almost unimaginable that an exciting outing to the beach could conclude so tragically.

Here is how to recognize if someone is in the process of drowning:

* Head low in the water, mouth at water level;

* Head tilted back with open mouth;

* Hair over forehead or eyes;

* Eyes glassy, empty and unable to focus;

* Eyes closed;

* Hyperventilating or gasping;

* Not using legs;

* Body is vertical and upright;

* Trying to swim in a certain direction but not making progress;

* Trying to roll over on the back.

A drowning person is not going to yell out very loudly. Speech is secondary to breathing. Screaming requires a lot of breath and energy.

Once you notice that someone may be drowning, call it to the attention of a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is on duty, extend something to the victim to grab and hold onto. Try to keep your distance if possible because someone inexperienced in water rescue can easily become a victim as well.

But sometimes, you have to do what you have to do, the best way possible - because a life is in danger.
I was sitting poolside at a resort on South Padre Island many years ago. My son, John, dragged me out there. He wanted to go to the beach, but I was too tired. We compromised on going to the pool, and he played in the water while I read the paper.

He was about 6 years old, and he had known how to swim for a year or two. I was glancing at the pool and reading the local paper. Everything was nice and peaceful.

Then, two young girls came out and jumped in the water. They were screaming and having a good time. I wasn’t paying too much attention to them.

“Dad, I think that girl is drowning,” John said.

I looked up, and the older girl - probably about 14 - was in the deep side of the pool, going under for a second time. She had ventured into the deep end and didn’t know how to swim.

I jumped in. I didn’t worry about finding a pole, or anything else, for her to grab. I swam up behind her and held onto her shoulder with one arm as I made my way to the side of the pool.

She was still conscious. I helped her out of the water and rolled her over in case she took in any water.
Fortunately, John spoke up in ample time.

She was scared, but O.K.

She could not speak English. Her parents were nowhere nearby. She and her sister were by themselves. Neither knew how to swim.

She coughed some and said “gracias.” I replied, “de nada.” That was about the limit of my high school Spanish.

The next day I saw the girl with her family as we checked out. She wouldn’t make eye contact.
John asked, “Dad, isn’t that the girl who was drowning in the pool?”

She was embarrassed. That’s O.K. What was important was that she was alive.

If John hadn’t nagged me to take him to the beach, and if we hadn’t compromised on the pool, that teenager may have become another weekend statistic.

In 2009, 113 kids drowned in Texas. About 3,050 deaths occur from drowning in Texas annually.

I never saw the young girl again and couldn’t recognize her today if she stood in front of me, but what’s important is that she didn’t drown that afternoon.

Stay safe, and enjoy the summer.