Bodies of water continue to claim lives in the Valley of the Sun

All bodies of water --- both large and small --- can become dangerous places for human beings off all ages if the proper precautions are not made. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

All bodies of water — both large and small — can become dangerous places for human beings of all ages if the proper precautions are not made. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

As the Valley of the Sun continues to see triple-digit temperatures water holes of varying degrees — from public and private pools to natural bodies of water — folks are looking for every opportunity of reprieve from the blistering heat.

But the summertime respite sought by thousands in the Phoenix metropolitan area does not come free of danger as there have been 29 drowning deaths resulting from 83 water-related incidents so far this year.

Bodies of water within portions of the Sonoran Desert millions call home has claimed eight infants, one teenager and 20 adults as of Wednesday, July 20, according to the Children’s Safety Zone.

While the numbers show a steady rate of drownings, drowning awareness experts and advocates contend the epidemic is completely avoidable.

“There are different segments that we need to address when we talk about this overall,” said Lori Schmidt who serves as president of the Drowning Awareness Coalition of Arizona.

Lori Schmidt

Lori Schmidt

“There are some underlying issues that are not changing — people are not taking the simple steps to prevent these tragedies from happening. Every drowning is preventable, so let’s do the best we can to stop it from happening.”

Ms. Schmidt points out the ABCs of drowning prevention — adult supervision, barriers to a body of water and the completion of CPR classes — remain paramount but the tenets of that plan are not always being followed.

“We have people drowning when we have people around the pool,” she pointed out. “We need to make sure we are assigning watching duties for the pool and people are able to identify the struggling kid.”

The Hollywood depiction of a drowning is not the reality of water-related incidents, Ms. Schmidt explains.

“People don’t really understand drowning does not look like what we think it looks like,” she said. “People in distress tend to be climbing an invisible ladder. You have to have awareness, ‘am I counting all of my heads?’”

Adult supervision remains the No. 1 deterrent to child drownings but no parent can have eyes on their child every waking moment, Ms. Schmidt admits.

“We need to have barriers in place for when we have a natural lapse in adult supervision,” she said pointing out the traditional 5-foot-tall metal pool fence is not the only option for homeowners.

“There are other options out there for barriers, there are pool covers or meshing to make sure no one can fall into the pool. If there is a child in the home these need to be in place.”

A drowning is a respiratory event that requires in injection of oxygen to the brain, Ms. Schmidt says.

““We need 30 compressions and two breaths over and over,” she said pointing out some confusion has emerged between what events are meant for hands-only CPR and those that need oxygen in addition to chest compressions.” “People think they don’t need to breath anymore, but for a drowning event, we need the oxygen to the brain as quickly as we can.”

Something that goes underreported, Ms. Schmidt says, is that two to three times the amount of adults drown every year in the Phoenix area compared to children.

“It is amazing when you look at the figures and that is because we are not taking that personal accountability. As adults, we are making bad decisions. A lot of time we are going in impaired and we are going in alone,” she said.

“We have got to start to watch out for each other. The other issues we are seeing with adults is drowning in open water.”

Drowning and young adults

Drowning awareness advocates say young adults are drowning at a higher rate then before.

“We have seen the number of young adults drowning over the last few years increase,” she said. “A lot of people think that when you turn 6 you know how to swim. There are lot of teenagers who don’t know how to swim.”

But even those who are strong swimmers can become susceptible to drowning especially in open water, advocates say.

Ryan Thomas

Ryan Thomas

“He smiled at his buddy, rolled off the boat and he never surfaced,” is how Shannon Liebrock described the last moments of Ryan Thomas’ life on Oct. 4, 2008. “He was studying communications, had two jobs and was in great shape. It was just one of those freak accidents. He actually drowned just 15 feet from shore.”

Ms. Liebrock, along with the Thomas family, launched the Ryan Thomas Foundation in 2009 to both honor the memory of Ryan and help educated others on the dangers of open water swimming.

“The night Ryan passed away, I am his aunt, my brother just said that he really wanted to continue Ryan’s name,” she recalled of the inception conversation.

“Since that time we have provided close to 1,000 life vests and provided about $150,000 in drowning awareness funding. We just really try to educate people on the dangers of open water and the importance of life vests.”

In partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Ryan Thomas Foundation has been able to provide 16 life vest kiosks at seven popular lakes here in Arizona in an effort to make sure everyone has a life vest that is Coast Guard approved.

The lakes that have the life vest kiosks are:

  • Saguaro Lake
  • Lake Mohave
  • Bartlett Lake
  • Lake Pleasant
  • Canyon Lake
  • Apache Lake
  • Lake Havasu

Ms. Liebrock points out each kiosk houses 15 to 20 life vests that serve as loaner jackets.

“People can use them and return them when they are done,” she said. “It really helps with the sheriff’s department as it helps build positive relationship with the boating public. But these kiosks could not have been possible without the partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.”

In honor of Parker

The life of Parker Eaton was cut short at 22 months on June 29, 2013.

“We had just bought our house, we had just been in the house maybe three weeks and we had some landscapers over to remove some trees from the backyard,” said Jessica Eaton in a July 19 phone interview. “I had already paid them and we were fixing to leave when Parker awoke from his nap.”

Jessica and Parker Curtis

Jessica and Parker Curtis

Mrs. Eaton, Parker’s mom, says the pool gate was left unlocked inadvertently, Parker got into the pool and succumbed to drowning complications July 3, 2013.

“They left my gate open and they didn’t close it and I turned my alarms off as there were in and out all day,” she said. “I went to the bathroom and Parker woke up and went outside. When I checked outside that is when I found him. We thought we were doing everything right.”

Following the tragedy, the Eaton family formed the Barbara Parker Foundation in an effort to honor both Parker and his grandmother.

“Our main goal is to get stricter barrier codes within the Board of Realtors,” she said of the main purpose of the 501(c)3 foundation.

Pool fence requirements are governed by Arizona Revised Statutes with each individual municipality over the last several years rendering its own requirements, drowning awareness officials contend. A typical loop hole, they say, is if the homeowner of the property has children over the age of 6 no barrier to a pool is required.

“No child is pool proof, swimming lessons is the No. 1 way to protect your child,” Mrs. Eaton said pointing out barriers to access are the best first step to protecting your children around bodies of water.

“But if your child doesn’t know how to float then none of those barriers are going to do any good.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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