OAKLEY -- The blink of an eye. That's how quickly Ivonne Brown discovered that a pool outing can turn into a parent's worst nightmare.
During a moment of distraction last weekend,¿ her 3-year-old son, Steve, slipped quietly below the surface of an Oakley community pool and out of sight.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever gone through," Brown said. "I wouldn't want anyone else ever to have to go through the same thing."
Her preschooler was rescued by friends in time, but other parents who haven't been so fortunate say it's stunning how swiftly a day at the pool can turn tragic.
"Individually, we get distracted. We think somebody else has their eye on the pool," swim safety advocate Nadina Riggsbee said. "Then, all of a sudden ..."
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 300 children a year younger than 5 drown, some in just inches of water. Thousands more are hospitalized or have brain damage. The cost of long-term care for a near-drowning victim can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per family.
"I see it all the time," Riggsbee says. "And we need to bring people's attention to it. Because it's a horrific, horrific nightmare."
She would know. On July 14, 1978, Riggsbee's 2-year-old daughter, Samira, and her 1-year-old son, JJ, fell into the family pool in Danville, while under the care of a babysitter who was momentarily in the bathroom. Samira died, and JJ is severely brain-damaged. He now lives in a care facility in Alameda, said Riggsbee, of Benicia.
Brown's son was much luckier on May 17. Three adult friends who were socializing with the Browns were about 10 feet from the pool and pulled Steve out before he lost consciousness. They pressed on his chest, then turned him over as he expelled a significant amount of pool water from his lungs.
"I just can't believe how fast the whole thing happened," Brown says. "I mean, we were leaving, and I had taken his shorts that have built-in floaties off. I thought he was fine, and I put my attention on something else for just a second."
That scenario has already played out twice this month at Bay Area pools to more tragic effect. An 18-month old Antioch boy drowned in a family pool on May 16, and two days later, a 2-year-old Cupertino boy drowned in a home spa. On May 11, a 1-year-old Concord boy was unconscious in a pool when he was rescued; he's expected to recover.
Between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays a year ago, 202 children ages 1 to 14 drowned in pool or spa accidents in the United States, according to poolsafety.gov, a website overseen by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those, 143 were younger than 5, and 23 of the incidents occurred in California. Figures compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that drowning produces more deaths among children ages 1 to 4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies.
"Way too many of these tragedies are occurring," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the CPSC. "And as tragic as each of these cases are, what's even more tragic is that most of them should not have happened."
Wolfson said many adults don't realize the danger water presents to small children, who can drown in less than a minute in less than an inch of water. Even more frightening is how quietly it happens. Unlike in the movies, drowning victims don't kick and scream, he said.
"Drowning is quick and silent," Wolfson said. "The kid goes in, he breathes instinctively, and water gets into the lungs. It can happen in seconds. It can happen in the time you avert your eyes to answer a quick question."
Swim safety advocates say a set of eyes should never leave the pool when a child is close by. Similar to a designated driver, "water watchers" have just one responsibility.
"What we're concerned with is everybody watching, but really, nobody's watching," Wolfson says. "What we're talking about with a water watcher is constant, eyes-on-the-kid, eyes-on-the-water supervision. It should be absolutely mandatory for any parent who has a pool or who goes to a pool with their young one."
So, too, safety advocates said, should be swim lessons for children and CPR lessons for adults.
"To have to tell a parent that their child has died in a swimming pool is as bad as it gets," Marshall says. "Be safe, learn CPR and never, ever take your eyes off the kids. People don't think it can happen to them, but it can happen in an instant, and there's no getting that instant back."
Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789. Follow him at Twitter.com/3rdERH.