The warning signs of drowning are most often seen, not heard.
Those visual cues may be subtle, not dramatic, counter to what’s portrayed on TV or in movies.
“There is nobody yelling for help, waving arms. It’s very silent,” said Mike Kapuscinski, aquatics director for the Treasure Valley Family YMCA. “You can’t call out when you’re drowning because you’ve got water obstructing your airway.”
The person may not even appear to be in distress. Take note if a swimmer becomes quiet; has glassy or closed eyes; can’t talk or respond to your questions; or has hair covering his or her face or mouth at water level with head tilted back.
But knowing these warning signs of drowning is really the last line of defense in a series of protective measures that can save lives.
“Prevention. That’s the key ingredient for all of it,” said Kapuscinski, who noted that some wrongly presume swimmers are completely safe if lifeguards and/or other adults are present. “We talk about layers of prevention.”
Those safeguards can include barriers around private pools, swim lessons, Coast Guard-certified flotation devices (rather than simple, ineffective arm floaties) and designated “water watchers.” Technology can help, too — alarms of all kinds are available, warning you if a gate is opened, if someone is in a pool or if a swimmer’s head is underwater too long.
Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the second-leading cause of injury death for children 5 to 9.
Most drowning deaths for young U.S. children occur in home swimming pools. The statistics are a little different for Idaho, where kids are more likely to be around irrigation canals or in the great outdoors.
There were 61 child drownings in this state from 2006 to 2015, according to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare. Of those, 44 happened in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, ponds or canals. Five happened in home or public pools (those children were ages 1 to 7).
Regardless of the location, the circumstances of Boise 5-year-old Ilai Mizrachi-Gabbitas’ death last summer provide a caution about how quickly children can get into trouble in the water.
Joyous occasion turned tragic
Ilai’s death shocked Boiseans, who rallied around the boy’s grieving parents and raised funds for a library in his name. Residents posted expressions of love and support on unfolded pastry boxes outside the family’s North End bakery, Janjou Patisserie.
According to a heavily redacted police report released last fall, Ilai went to a friend’s birthday party on Aug. 9 with his father, Chuck Gabbitas, who chatted with a couple within view of the backyard pool. At least a half-dozen adults and children were talking and playing. Ilai talked to a mother sitting near the pool.
“We talked together about why some pools use salt instead of chlorine,” a woman who was at the party wrote in a witness statement. “After that, Ilai put his goggles on and jumped in.”
A few minutes later, Chuck Gabbitas retrieved his child from the water, and he and another parent began CPR on the boy. Eventually a Boise police officer and paramedics took over, continuing as the boy was transported to St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The police report described the pool as “large,” with a 3-foot shallow end and 5-foot deep end. It’s unclear exactly how long Ilai was in the water; witnesses estimated 4 to 5 minutes.
Water watcher, life jackets recommended
Alarmed at having the highest rate of young child drowning deaths, Florida officials in 2014 created a prevention campaign. “Eyes on the Kids” includes an informational website, waterprooffl.com, that offers downloadable brochures, posters and water watcher tags for anyone concerned about water safety — just as applicable here on the other side of the country.
One of the major themes stressed by that campaign and Kapuscinski: There is no substitute for active supervision when it comes to children playing in or near water. Such supervision should be done by someone who is not distracted by a phone or conversation, such as a designated water watcher.
In fact, it’s a good idea to have more than one water watcher to allow watchers to take breaks or in case one leaves, Kapuscinski said. He also recommends watchers move around every five minutes, rather than sit in one place, and engage the swimmers directly about what they’re doing. Children like to play games and swim under water; monitoring what they’re doing can be tricky.
“If there’s any doubt in your mind about what’s happening, say, ‘Hey Jimmy, what are you doing? Susie, what’s going on?’ Kapuscinski said.
For parties with kids who can’t reach the water’s surface when standing on the bottom of the pool, he recommends lifejackets.
“They’ll play and have a good time,” he said. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to be watched closely, he noted. Nonapproved and/or ill-fitting jackets may not keep a child’s face out of the water.
Library still in the works
The original plan was to build the library in the community center’s building. But Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz said the Jewish Center is now moving to a larger location that will better accommodate the new library.
“We have purchased a property and are in the process of designing the library,” he said.
Chuck Gabbitas and his wife, Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas hosted a community event May 26 called “Pastries with Paramedics” to raise awareness about the role of first responders in saving lives.
“They are people who will be there for you when you need them most,” Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas said in a notice announcing the gathering.
Until that event, the couple had not spoken publicly about their son’s death. But they wrote about his life on Facebook shortly after the drowning.
“He loved being a Jew and he loved learning about Jewish values and traditions and talked about it often, teaching it to us and anyone that would listen,” the couple wrote in a post. “He was our prized student. But he was also our teacher.”
Another important step: Teach your kids to swim
YMCA: The Treasure Valley Family YMCA offers lessons year-round for all ages, with most kids taking classes when they are between 4 and 10, according to David Duro, CEO of the local Y.
The YMCA offers parent-child lessons starting when babies are 6 months old. Visit the YMCA online, or call for information on group or private lessons. Downtown Y aquatic coordinator, 344-5502 ext. 229; West Y aquatic coordinator, 377-9622 ext. 454; Caldwell Y aquatic coordinator, 459-2498 ext. 675.
Boise: The city offers four summer sessions. The first starts June 19 and the last starts July 31. Resident fee: $35.00; nonresident fee: $53.70. Get more information and sign up for lessons at parks.cityofboise.org.
Meridian Pool: It offers six sessions during the summer. The first session starts June 5 and the last session starts Aug. 14. For more details, visit meridianpool.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 887-1730.
Nampa Recreation Center: It offers year-round learn-to-swim classes and water exercise classes. Get details at nampaparksandrecreation.org or call 468-5858.
Caldwell Pool: It offers five sessions during the summer. The first starts June 5 and the last starts July 31. Get more information at cityofcaldwell.org, or call 455-3060.