Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Water Hazard

The tragedy of six teenagers drowning Monday evening in Shreveport, La., as they tried to save a seventh from a similar fate, raised troubling questions. ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked in her opening comments Tuesday night, “Race and Drowning: Why do Afro-American children drown at higher rates?”

They are three times more likely to drown than white children, ABC reported. The segment offered three possible interrelated reasons—Afro-Americans often lack funds to pay for swimming lessons, they have a fear of water, and they mistakenly believe swimming is a white person’s activity (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/teens-drown-wading-louisianas-red-river/story?id=11312631).

All six victims, and the seventh child, did not know how to swim when they slipped into water above their heads. Compounding the tragedy—it transpired in front of their adult family members who were powerless to save them because they, too, did not know how to swim.

On several levels this story touched me personally. Despite 14 years at summer camp, I never learned to swim. Three times I almost drowned. The rare times I enter a pool I am always cognizant of the five foot line. Two weeks ago I wore a life jacket and enjoyed four waterlogged hours in a pool. I think that’s going to be my modus operandi from now on.

My inability to swim motivated me to make sure Dan and Ellie learned by the time they were seven. They’re excellent swimmers. Dan even became a lifeguard and experienced firsthand the dilemma presented in the ABC story. When he was 16, he was hired as a lifeguard at FDR State Park in Yorktown Heights. The park’s pool is one of the largest in the state, and the country. It can accommodate up to 3,500 bathers at one time. It can get that many swimmers because, even at 40 miles away, it is the closest free pool to New York City (Westchester County pools being off limits to non-county residents).

Over the course of the summer of 1995, the lifeguards at FDR State Park saved more than 400 people from drowning. Dan, alone, saved 11. He would tell us that kids from the city, despite not knowing how to swim, would simply jump into the pool without regard to how deep the water was.

I admit to being fearful of drowning. But my mother used to say you couldn’t escape your fate. You could wind up drowning in the shallow waters of your bathtub. And if death by fire was your fate, even being on a ship in the middle of the ocean cannot guarantee your safety.