Madeline Handler was only 8 when her older brother nearly drowned in the lake behind their house in upstate New York. He was several years older and a good swimmer, but when he got a cramp in his leg and started flailing, Madeline had to call for help.
Fortunately their father was within earshot and was able to rescue the boy.
"Looking back on it, we were probably only a few dozen feet from shore, and the whole thing took maybe 20 seconds," Handler remembers. "But it stuck with me. I had nightmares about it. I was as scared as I ever was."
Handler's brother was lucky. He was swimming with a buddy who knew enough to call for help, and an adult was nearby. But for many, that's not the case.
In 2015 (the most recent statistics available), 39 unintentional drowning deaths occurred in Massachusetts and another 223 near-drowning cases required treatment at a Massachusetts hospital, according to state records. That year, drowning was the leading cause of unintentional injury death among Massachusetts children ages 14 and under.
Statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission show that drowning rates nationwide have remained consistent for decades.
Children in the water
Handler, who now lives in Natick, said that moment with her brother all those years ago came rushing back to her when her daughter was a toddler playing in a kiddie pool in their backyard. She enrolled her in swimming lessons that summer, and did the same for her other two children.
"You can never be too careful," she said. "Parents will always worry, but (my kids) knowing how to swim and learning to respect the water gives me peace of mind."
Meagan Hilton, aquatics director for the Emilson branch of the South Shore YMCA in Hanover, said there are multiple reasons why drowning rates are especially high for young children, and that the deaths are preventable.
One of those reasons is the same as why automobile accidents are on the rise, and it is something many people can relate to: being distracted.
"Parents seem to be distracted more and more," Hilton said. "They're on their phones, or they're watching after other children. You need to be alert at all times. Especially for kids -- if your child is 3 or 5 years old and is in the water, you should not be looking at your phone, for any amount of time, period."
Knowing proper swimming techniques also greatly reduces the rate of drownings, Hilton said, but it's a skill that seems to be waning.
"Across the nation, swimming lessons seem to be down among younger kids," she said. "There's so much stuff going on, and teaching your kids to swim just isn't as big a priority as it used to be."
Hilton said the South Shore YMCA offered free water safety lessons recently, as it commonly does, and of the 80 or so people who said they were interested in attending, only about 30 showed up.
Handler said she was surprised how few of her children's friends took lessons.
"It was just a part of life for a child to learn to swim," she said. "Just like watching Saturday morning cartoons. It just seems to be pass�, which is scary because it's a skill that could save your life."
Water safety starts at home
One of the biggest areas of concern for parents, Hilton said, is backyard pools. She said a little bit of education and precaution can go a long way in preventing a pool drowning.
"Parents think that if they have a fence up they'll be OK, but that's not always enough," she said.
Just over half of all drownings among 1- to 4-year-olds take place in pools, the CDC reports. The National Drowning Prevention Alliance states that a quarter of pool drownings occur during a family gathering where several people are in the immediate area.
For Peter Spagone Jr., of East Bridgewater, the risks of a home pool became real 20 years ago when he lost his daughter in a drowning.
"Our 2-year-old daughter got away from her mother for a split second and fell into a pool cover," he said. "It happened fast."
Spagone said he began advocating for pool safety immediately, and created a memorial fund in his daughter's name. He said the incident his family endured, and others like it, have greatly increased the precautions taken around pools.
"We've clearly seen major changes," Spagone said. "There is an increase in awareness, and in regulations."
Spagone has served on the East Bridgewater Board of Health for many years, and in that time has worked with other agencies in town on increasing measures taken over pool inspections.
"East Bridgewater does their due diligence for sure," he said. "We've made major strides in making sure pools are safer than they used to be."
According to Hilton, flotation devices that wrap around a child's arms, commonly called floaties, are one of the worst things a parent can use for a young child learning to swim.
"Anything inflatable has the chance of popping," she said. "And floaties elevate your arms and put your head at a lower point. This can easily lead to a serious problem."
Hilton said other swimming aids can absorb water and weigh a swimmer down.
"In the end, a swimmer of any age should only be using a certified flotation device, such as one that is specifically marked as 'U.S. Coast Guard approved,'" she said.
Hilton said proper gear can save a life at any age.
"There's a reason people are required to wear life jackets when they're on a boat," she said. "You could be Michael Phelps, but if you hit your head while you're in the water, you need to know how to float. The fact is, no one is ever truly water safe."
From teens to seniors, supervision is key
The American Red Cross lists several other factors that can lead to drowning among teens and adults. Two of the most common include not knowing how to swim and swimming with no supervision.
But other factors can include swimming near boats or in strong currents, shock from diving into extremely cold waters, or losing consciousness after hitting your head on rocks or other objects.
With many adults, the threat comes from swimming while under the influence. Alcohol is involved in up to 50 percent of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Alcohol influences balance, coordination and judgment, and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.
Not knowing the warning signs of drowning also play a role. Many people assume that if someone is drowning, they will be splashing, calling for help or waving their arms.
"In reality, drowning is swift and silent," according to the Massachusetts Injury Prevention & Control Program's drowning fact sheet. "There is often no struggle or splashing, no cry for help. Many drownings occur in the presence of other children or adults."
This spring and summer alone, a freshman at Clinton High School died after drowning in South Meadow Pond, a 50-year-old man drowned in Learned Pond in Framingham, a 23-year-old Beverly man drowned in a Hamilton pond, and a 77-year-old retired Swarthmore professor was found in Long Pond in Lakeville.
A 2019 Medford High School graduate was pulled from the Upper Mystic Lake in Medford after going for a late-night swim on July 1. The victim was in an area where lack of supervision and proximity to nearby boats have made it a dangerous spot for swimmers over the years.
"There's no lifeguards here, so you swim at your own risk," Eric Calvert, a member of the Medford Boat Club, told Wicked Local news partner, WCVB Channel 5. "Unfortunately, if you're not a strong swimmer ... it's just unfortunate."
When swimming in dangerous spots is coupled with not knowing proper technique, the likelihood of a drowning only increases.
The Middlesex County District Attorney's Office stated the investigation into the Upper Mystic Lake drowning suggested the victim was "unable to swim." In the aftermath of the incident, Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke said the high school is working on educating the public about the city's free swimming lessons.
Burke said one option they are discussing is whether schools can offer mandatory learn-to-swim programs, where students will get tested and then have to take lessons in physical education classes if they don't pass the swimming test. Burke said she will meet with the School Committee before school starts to see if they can implement it as a mandatory part of the school curriculum.
"We make any accommodation to offer (free swimming lessons) because we know how important it is," Burke asserted. "We never turn away a child or an adult. That is the biggest thing we can do is to make sure everybody knows how to swim, including just doggy-paddling, just to stay afloat."
Hilton supports the idea of people routinely engaging in learn-to-swim activities, as drownings can occur at any time.
"We see a lot of interest in lessons in the spring as people get ready for summer, but there's no reason to wait," she said. "People swim in hotel pools, they swim when they visit Disney World. Being safe in the water and learning what to do if something happens should be a year-round priority."
For Spagone, the loss of his daughter nearly 20 years ago serves as a reminder of how quickly a tragic incident can occur around water, and the constant need for safety.
"Life has certainly been looked at differently since then," he said. "Our lives will never be the same, but we've also received so much support from other people who heard our story. It's a reminder of how your life can change in an instant, and you should never take anything for granted."
Wicked Local Medford reporter Robby McKittrick contributed to this report.
This article is written by Matthew Reid from The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.