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When I was 19, a boy drowned at the pool where I worked. I was the first responder. This is the story of that day as I remember it.
Dedicated to Murphy Shurig. Aug 4, 2002
The screams were coming from a group of boys who moments ago were playing and throwing a ball back and forth. They were regulars at the pool but I didn’t know any of them well.
This was my first summer at this particular pool, so I hadn’t gotten to know all of the pool rats yet. I did know that they were all above average swimmers though. They were also just on the edge of my zone, (the part of the pool a lifeguard is responsible for watching). It was right where my zone and the other life guard’s zone intersected.
I thought they might be trying to get my attention as part of a game they were playing, something that is not all that uncommon. But when I looked over, I saw them holding up one of their friends. They were lifting him to the edge of the pool.
I looked over in time to see them setting him up on the edge and let him go. Just in time to watch his pale body fall lifeless to the deck.
And then time stopped…
THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!!
In what seemed like slow motion, I jumped from my platform on the guard chair down to the ground. I’m not sure why, but as I ran over to where the boy was laying, I pulled the whistle and lanyard from around my neck and flung it away.
When I got to where they had dropped his body I saw my worst nightmare laying on the ground in front of me. His skin tone was not natural. Not blue like they show in the movies, but not like any color skin I had ever seen before.
I checked for a pulse. It was there, but it was weak. The manager on duty must have noticed that something was going on because she started to walk over.
I screamed at someone nearby to call 911, and ran to the guard shack for gloves and a mask. Thing I should have had on me at the time.
When I got back, the manager had starting rescue breathing. She must not have had the airway opened properly because that air went right into his stomach and not his lungs.
How do I know? Because vomit, that’s how. Lot’s of it. Right into her mouth!
Watching the kid throw up should have thrilled me, except this was not voluntarily evacuation. The air she was breathing into his stomach just needed to escape… along with whatever he had eaten for lunch.
I straddled his lifeless body and started thrusting above his pelvis and just below the belly button. Pelvic thrusts to make sure the airway was clear and to help purge the rest of whatever was left in his stomach so we could try the breaths again.
She cleared his mouth with her finger, put the mask over his mouth and tried to give him another breath. He threw up again but this time was different. This was a mild mix of foamy whiteness and whatever else was left in him from the previous purge.
I look to my right, towards the two other pools. The rest of the lifeguards are still sitting in their chairs. People swimming as if nothing was happening. I noticed that the lifeguard who had her back to me was turned around to see what was going on. I could tell she was crying. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to sit there and not be able to react.
My first thought was anger. “Why aren’t you helping?” And then I realized it was actually a good thing. It was a big facility and if they had cleared the pools, a huge crowd would be gathering around us.
Even then, a crowd was forming. Small at first, but the people who had cleared the slide pool were starting to notice that something was seriously wrong.
I continue scanning the scene. It was like time was frozen but I wasn’t.
I locked eyes with a mom who was standing there with her two kids. One on either side of her, under each arm.
“Get them out of here!” I shouted in her direction.
Where is the other lifeguard that was watching the slide pool with me? Shouldn’t she be handling crowd control? Did anyone call the paramedics? Breathe kid, Please just take a breath on your own! Dozens of thoughts were shooting through my head all at once.
I finally see the other guard. She’s standing over by the front gate, probably waiting for the paramedics. She was also crying.
I look back down, another breath, still nothing. I check for a pulse again. It’s there, but barely. No chest compressions, yet.
It get’s a little fuzzy from there, but those few minutes felt like forever. The next thing I know the paramedics were there and it was all I could do to get away from the seemingly lifeless body.
I took a step back and fell to my knees. How could this be happening to me?
I was prepared for this. I was the guard who was always stressing the importance of training. I was the guard who suggested that we start doing weekly in-service trainings, but “that would not be necessary at this pool!” is what I was told it.
“We’ve never had a drowning or major accident at this pool. There is no need for that kind of training.”
That’s what the manager told me earlier that summer. The same one who had just been mouth-to-mouth with a lifeless 13 year old boy.
What a shitty time to be thinking I told you so!
That was just a few days before another ominous conversation I had at the beginning of that summer. A conversation in which I told my girlfriend at the time (a lifeguard at the same facility) that “Someone is going to die at this pool.”
I wasn’t specifically saying that someone would die that summer, but I sure as shit said it, and I hate that about myself. I hate that I saw it coming and still did nothing.
I saw that the training was lax and that to most of the seasonal staff, life guarding was about getting a great tan and hanging at the pool all summer. They were all strong swimmers, and the pool was in a wealthy neighborhood. After all, things like that aren’t supposed to happen here.
At least that is what they thought, before that day.
Could I have done more?
I hated myself for not being more vocal. For not being more adamant when I saw someone sitting in their chair sideways, or ignoring the pool. I should have spoken up when I saw someone using the rescue tube as a pillow, or reclining in their chair for a better tanning position. But I was the new guy. What was I gonna to do?
It wasn’t like I spent the summer before that managing a another local pool, and the summer before that working the wave pool at a large water park. I quit counting after 100 rescues that summer. But not at this pool.
There we were, half way through the summer, and I hadn’t made a single rescue. Maybe they were right. Maybe nothing bad was ever going to happen here.
So I started to relax. I started to become complaisant. Mostly I just wanted to fit in. And after a few times of being called “Pool Nazi,” I decided to roll with the cool kids. I decided to set my intuition aside and do things their way. I decided to drop my guard.
But I should have known better. Because I was also the guy who had been through everything you could ever go through as a lifeguard. I was the guy who knew, that at any moment, something could go wrong. The one who should have been prepared. But there I was. The first responder, and unprepared. I was the guy who failed. And it might have cost the kid his life.
To make things worse…
The police wanted to talk to us right away. They took me and the other guard, the one who had run to the front gate to wait for the ambulance, and put us in the back of a cop car to fill out the required reports. A cop car that just so happened to be sitting at the base of the steps that lead to the entrance of the pool.
It left us sitting so that everyone leaving the pool, as it was being cleared, would have to walk by and see us sitting in the back of that car. I felt like a criminal. I couldn’t stop shaking. No tears though, those would come later.
After I was done with the police I went into the office where some of the pool staff and management was talking. I remember trying to call my parents to come pick me up, driving was out of the question. My dad answered the phone.
Before I could get a single word out, I started bawling. Uncontrollable tears as the reality of the event began to set in. One of the managers, or maybe one of the board members (I can’t really remember) took the phone from me to explain the situation and have them come pick me up. I was 19 years old.
A piece of me died that day, even though the kid lived. But just barely. He would never regain consciousness.
It would take me more than a decade to realize how this event had changed my entire trajectory. To realize that it sent me on a spiral of self destruction that would eventually lead me to drop out of college, move across state lines and bury myself in whatever distraction I could find.
I spent a lot of time at his bedside the next few days, until the family decided to take him off of life support. His pain was over. But mine was just beginning.
A final round of tests during an autopsy revealed that he suffered from some sort of heart condition. It just happened to hit him while he was under water. They said that the same thing might have happened to him if he was playing at a baseball diamond, or in his back yard.
But he wasn’t at a baseball diamond. He wasn’t playing in his back yard, was he? He was at a pool. He was at my pool. And I was the guy. I could have saved him!
I was left to replay the events of that day in my head over and over. Wondering what I could have done differently. Knowing that none of those thoughts were productive but allowing them to eat at me nonetheless.
The local fire station set up some counseling for us, but it wasn’t at all helpful. How was an hour of talking going to change anything? The memory would be forever engrained in the deepest creases of my mind.
I would later meet with the boy’s parents and deliver a letter I had written to them. Two letters actually.
One was a firsthand account of the events of that day (in a sealed envelope in case they didn’t want to read it) and the other was a letter offering myself to them, in whatever way they might have me.
They never blamed me for the events of that day, but they didn’t have to. My worst fear had come true, and I blamed myself.