Mainers have just wrapped up another summer on the water. Most people stayed safe while boating on the state’s lakes, cooling off in streams or relaxing poolside, but about two dozen didn’t, losing their lives to drowning.
According to the state medical examiner’s office, approximately 25 people have died from drowning in Maine so far this year, though official figures haven’t been tallied yet. National statistics show drowning is the leading cause of death for children under age 1 and the No. 1 cause of accidental death across the country for children under the age of 4.
From 2008 to 2010, about 30 people died each year as a result of drowning in Maine, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many times, bystanders don’t even know it’s happening.
“If parents make a mistake, it’s that they think there’s going to be some sign of distress. Kids get quieter when they drown, not louder,” said Mario Vittone, a marine safety specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard and an expert on drowning and safety at sea.
Vittone authored a blog post in 2010 titled “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” that took off on social media sites this summer. In it, he describes drowning as a “deceptively quiet event” that rarely involves the waving, splashing and yelling that most people expect.
According to a national study cited by Safe Kids USA, a national network of organizations working to prevent unintentional childhood injury, a parent or caregiver claimed to be present and supervising the children in roughly nine out of 10 cases in which a child died from drowning. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which studies pool-related deaths, found that a lapse in adult supervision was attributed to 54 percent of drowning cases involving victims under 5 years old.
Those statistics don’t paint the full picture, according to Gerald Dworkin, an aquatics safety and water rescue expert with Lifesaving Resources in Kennebunkport. The Consumer Product Safety Commission looks only at incidents in residential pools, not at beaches or in natural water bodies. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics do reflect those deaths, but treat boating-related drownings separately and don’t track incidents of people drowning in submerged vehicles, he said.
Dworkin, who develops water safety training for lifeguards, said parents should be the first line of defense against drowning.
“I’ve seen case after case, even with trained lifeguards, where there’s a victim in distress and the lifeguard fails to recognize it,” he said.
Brian Murray, park manager at Popham Beach State Park and coordinator of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands’ lifeguard academy, said Maine state parks haven’t recorded a drowning death in years. Lifeguards look for swimmers who are bobbing at the surface, paddling too hard, or appear to be tiring, he said.
Many visitors don’t have the skills to be at the depths they’re swimming in, Murray said.
“We’ve been amazed by how many people can’t swim,” he said.
Half of all adults in the country don’t know how to swim, according to the Coast Guard’s Vittone.
Lack of skill and maturity both contribute to what’s known as the “instinctive drowning response,” which differs from aquatic distress, when people are still able to wave or call for help.
When someone is drowning, they can’t yell for help because their breathing is compromised as their mouth alternately sinks below and rises above the surface of the water, Vittone explains. Drowning people can’t wave or reach for rescue equipment because they instinctively extend their arms laterally and press on the water’s surface to lift their mouths to breathe.
They bob up and down in the water and there’s typically little splashing, Vittone said.
“If you see a kid in the water and their hair is in their eyes, that’s something else to look out for because that’s not typical … If they’re not wiping their hair away from their face, it’s maybe because they can’t. You don’t stop drowning to clear your eyes of hair,” he said.
Vittone said he has heard of a number of cases of children drowning at pool parties where plenty of adults were present.
“It’s the quietest thing happening in the party,” Vittone said. “If no one’s directly watching it happen, you don’t see it happen. [The kids] all get out of the pool because it’s time for cake, except for the one kid who’s at the bottom.”
Parents have to be familiar with their child’s swimming ability, he said. The U.S. CDC recommends designating a “water watcher” to constantly keep an eye on swimming kids, and even posting a sign instructing others not to distract that person.
Most important is knowing what to look for to prevent a tragedy, Vittone said.
“The struggle only lasts between 20 to 60 seconds, so you have to be watching,” he said.