Dangerous Water

(This column was first published in the August 6, 2001 Buffalo News.)

It had been some time since I had the nightmare. This time it returned with particular intensity.

The dream is simply a woman's strained voice calling, "Vernon, Vernon," and the doorbell ringing. That's all it takes to shock me into full consciousness and, awakened, I relive that terrible experience from my deep past.

I was only eight, my brother Vern fourteen. The call came for him. It was a neighbor whose two-year-old had fallen into their tiny duck pond and was found floating face down and unconscious. The mother had come for my brother because he was a boy scout trained in artificial respiration.

My parents and I raced across the street following my brother and the woman to the backyard where the child was held in her sobbing father's arms. Vern quickly and efficiently lay out the tiny body and commenced the then accepted respiration procedure. Sadly, that was long before today's far better mouth-to-mouth technique. I even recall the refrain he repeated over and over to slow his actions: "Out goes the bad air, in comes the good air." He had the rest of us rub the tiny pink hands and feet.

In the background stood the family's two pet geese.

It was only minutes before the ambulance arrived and the medics took over, but it seemed a lifetime. Indeed it was for that dear little child never made it.

What probably caused that nightmare was a small article in that day's News about two New York City sisters. They were drowned when they were caught in a riptide at a Long Island beach. They had been wading just knee deep.

Humans are made up mostly -- over 70 percent -- of water. We need it to survive. But we are not amphibians and there are dangers associated with water. Lakes, streams and even backyard pools must be taken seriously for the threats they pose.

In this regard my recollection of swimming at Point Abino in a recent column brought a concerned response from Judge Timothy Drury. Several years ago he lost an adult friend to the undertow near that beach. He tells me that still no warning is posted.

Often, as in that case, water problems are well disguised. For example, weirs that dam streams to create just two or three foot water drops are especially dangerous. Unsuspecting boaters can easily capsize and be trapped underwater by the powerful downward flowing current.

Likewise canoeists who overturn in rapids (even those rated Class I or II) are warned to float downstream -- on their backs and feet-first. The reason: If you hold onto a rock over which water is flowing, you become a part of the streambed and the fast moving water will flow over you as well.

Never a good swimmer, as a youngster I developed one ability that set me apart from my friends. I could swim underwater farther than any of them. By the time I was in college I could swim two lengths* of an Olympic pool without surfacing. I often practiced this activity unsupervised, even with no one in the natatorium. Now I learn that my activity was especially dangerous. Underwater distance swimmers can quite easily and without warning slip into unconsciousness and, without immediate assistance, drown.**

Yes, water can be dangerous. But it is also a wonderful resource, especially here where we have two Great Lakes, the Niagara River, nearby Lake Chautauqua and the Finger Lakes, as well as spectacular stream-cut gorges like Letchworth and Zoar Valley.

Enjoy our water but be aware of its darker side.-- Gerry Rising


* In the original form of this column I claimed that I could swim three lengths of an Olympic pool, but my memory of those distant times I now have decided was faulty. It has improved as I have thought about my ability. It turns out that my real feat - swimming just over two pool lengths - was outdone by a classmate, Joe Claparols. Joe was the one who swam three lengths while I treaded water far behind him gasping not only from my two lengths underwater but in amazement at his surpassing achievement. And as if that were not enough, when he surfaced it appeared to me that he did so because there was no more challenge and that he could have gone still further.

** Sadly, just four days after this column appeared in Buffalo a cadet who had this past spring completed his plebe year at Annapolis was drowned at a private club in Maryland where he had been swimming. Evidence clearly indicates that he was swimming underwater and lost consciousness just as I suggested could occur.

    Here are some excerpts from Christian Swezey's August 14th Washington Post article:

"A member of Navy's men's swimming team drowned in a Newport News, Va., pool after doing exercises designed to enable him to swim farther underwater, his father said yesterday.

"Kyle Hurdle, 21, a rising sophomore, died Friday night from shallow water blackout after training without coaching supervision at the Warwick Yacht Club pool, his father, Bill Hurdle, said....

"According to a Navy report written after three sailors died from shallow water blackout in 1998, the malady occurs when a swimmer purposely hyperventilates before going underwater in an attempt to decrease carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream. Because carbon dioxide provides he body's primary urge to breathe, reducing those levels allows swimmers to stay underwater longer.

"The risk, however, is that swimmers can lose consciousness and drown.

"Navy swimming coach Lee Lawrence said he tells Navy swimmers not to try to hold their breath too long underwater without supervision from himself or a senior academy swimming instructor. During practice, Mids swimmers are not allowed to stay underwater longer than 25 meters.

"Bill Hurdle said his son was attempting to go 75 meters underwater when he passed out.... "According to a Newport News police report, Hurdle was doing 'breath controlled laps at the pool when he went to the bottom.' Lifeguards jumped in, pulled him out and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until a medic arrived. Hurdle was taken to Riverside Hospital and pronounced dead a short time later, the report stated."

This is one of those cases where you are deeply saddened to have your warning confirmed.