Amber Bartlett Smith’s son River was "full of life and joy," she says.
He loved being outside, and his bright red hair was always messy. He always had a Lightning McQueen toy in his hand.
"He loved to go fast," she says.
He had just turned 3 when, on June 4, 2019, after dinner, he was playing with his dad, country singer Granger Smith, brother Lincoln and sister London. The boys were squirting each other and their dad with water guns.
When they first moved into their Georgetown home, the pool had no fence around it. They installed a 4-foot-high, four-sided fence with a gate, and the Smiths always told their children not to go near the pool without a parent.
"We thought we were doing everything right," Amber Bartlett Smith says.
She was inside the house when she heard her daughter scream that River fell in the pool.
It was two minutes between the time River had last squirted Granger Smith with a water gun and the time he was found in the pool. The Smiths have no idea how he got through the fence.
The Smiths began doing CPR, but River was gone.
Today, the Smiths are helping to educate fellow parents about the dangers of drowning.
"I am adamant about talking to people about water safety and the things they can do," Amber Bartlett Smith says. "We don’t want anyone else to go through it."
It’s something that doctors and hospitals talk about every year as summer is about to begin, but now Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas has started a drowning prevention and water safety project that will study the drowning dangers in our community and what local governments, local outreach groups, doctors and hospitals can do to reduce the risks.
Last year, Dell Children’s, which serves 46 counties, saw 47 near-drowning cases and six fatalities. Texas saw 87 drowning deaths in children last year and 18 already this year.
Stewart Williams, a public health professional who is Dell Children’s injury prevention manager, says the drowning program is "really interested in answering the question about our education system, our infrastructure, our policies. ... What can we really impact that would be helpful in our communities?"
Some of those things could be training more people to teach one-on-one swim lessons, increasing access to swim lessons and increasing access to life jackets, throwable flotation devices and call boxes at public swimming spots.
It goes beyond just creating community awareness, which has been the focus in the past.
"There is so much more we can do," Williams says.
The program is also looking at where drownings are happening and the situations in which they occur.
One of the things the program already has noticed is that locally the numbers follow national and state statistics, which find that kids ages 1 to 4 are most at risk for drowning. The next set is teenagers engaging in risky behavior or drugs and alcohol.
The research is also pointing to a particularly dangerous time for drowning: It’s either before or after a planned swimming event, when the caregiver is getting items out to go swimming or packing the stuff up to get ready to leave. The kid goes into the pool before everyone else or back into the pool without anyone seeing them.
Drowning doesn’t look like what you see in movies. It’s silent because the kids can’t breathe to be able to scream.
"It’s not an intentional distraction," Williams says of these cases in which a parent is nearby and doesn’t know their kid is in the pool.
"It happens in an instant," says Dr. Shyam Sivasankar, pediatric emergency medicine physician at St. David's Children's Hospital.
If you find a kid drowning, start CPR and call 911. Even if a child is breathing, look for continuing symptoms like difficulty breathing, changes in skin color and a continued cough, Sivasankar says.
Backyard pools are a common place for drownings to occur, but kids can drown in as little as 1 to 2 inches of water.
This summer, when community pools might stay closed, families may invest in inflatable pools or plastic kiddie pools. Those need to be drained in between use (which also helps prevent mosquitoes). Also, be aware of things like buckets or stock tanks and water retention ponds.
"Water’s attractive to kids," Williams says. "They are drawn to it."
Babies and toddlers can drown in bathtubs, sinks and toilets. Install toilet locks, and don’t walk away from a baby or toddler during bath time, even if it’s just to grab a towel.
Williams and Sivasankar recommend doing these things to prevent drownings:
• Be in the pool with the kids and within arm’s length.
• Put phones away.
• If there’s a lifeguard on duty, that’s great, but that lifeguard is not specifically watching your child. Colin’s Hope, an Austin-based nonprofit organization, recommends naming a water watcher: a designated adult whose only job is to watch the people in the water. Sometimes drownings happen when one caregiver thinks the other caregiver is watching the kids.
• If a caregiver needs to leave the pool area to grab something somewhere else, everyone has to get out of the pool and come with the caregiver, or another adult needs to be verbally assigned to be the water watcher.
• Learn CPR and how to swim.
• Get kids swim lessons starting at age 1. Colin’s Hope is offering virtual swim safety lessons while public pools are closed.
• Have kids wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets whenever they are around water.
• Install layers of protection around backyard pools: door and window alarms, pool alarms that alert when something falls into the pool, 4-foot-high fences on four sides, locked gates.
• Remove all toys and flotation devices from the pool area when not swimming to make the pool less tempting to young children.
• If you are visiting a new-to-you pool (like at someone else’s house), take a look at the safety measures that are in place.
For Smith, when she looks back on that day with River, she wishes they had used a pool alarm and had a second lock on the gate. She also wishes they had done swimming lessons with River and taken a CPR class other than the one she took in high school.
One thing she’s learned from meeting other parents who have lost children to drowning is that many of them had kids who wore puddle jumpers instead of a Coast Guard-approved life vest. Puddle jumpers get kids used to swimming upright rather than a more natural swimming stance. "They think they can walk in and float," Smith says.
The Smiths moved to a different house a month after River drowned.
"We will never have a pool again," she says. "Love your kiddos. You don’t know what tomorrow brings."