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How to Recognize a Drowning Victim

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CLEVELAND -- The drowning deaths of 3 young people in Northeast Ohio recently have lifeguards and aquatics experts sharing advice on how to really recognize a drowning victim.

Most people think they would recognize a person in trouble, but the experts say the reality is much more subtle and different than what’s often portrayed in Hollywood and can happen anywhere.

“It can happen with parents right beside of the child,” said Michelle Rieger, Cleveland State University Aquatics and Safety Coordinator.

Rieger said there are several tell-tale signs and stages of drowning, starting with an odd facial expression, which then leads to what’s called “a distressed swimmer.”

A "distressed swimmer" means the victim is still moving his or her legs and slowly making forward progress and have not sunken under water yet.

The next stage is what’s called “active drowning.” At this point, the person’s arms are still moving, but the legs are limp and eyes are focused on someone, either a parent or the lifeguard, but they are too exhausted to call for help.

Without help, the person will sink into what’s referred to as “passive drowning” in 20 to 60 seconds.

“Then they’ll start with their head. They could slip under with their head face down or while looking at someone, but they go under water and stay that way,” said Rieger.

It’s a horrifying situation that sadly claimed the lives of 3 young people recently.

A 9-year-old boy lost his life while on a field trip at a Euclid pool.

A 13-year-old boy drowned in Lake Erie in Ashtabula County and a 15-year-old boy died while swimming in Lake Erie near a west side Cleveland beach.

It’s unknown if those tragedies could’ve been prevented, but Rieger said some safety tips include closely watching the people you're with, especially in open water like Lake Erie because of the undercurrents.

Be sure to take head counts and pay attention if a person seems tired and always take frequent rest breaks, especially in extremely hot and humid weather.

She and many of the other lifeguards at CSU have rescued drowning victims. She said people don’t realize it can happen right in front of their eyes.

“Just because your child’s beside you doesn’t mean they’re safe,” said Rieger. “You really want to focus on their facial expressions and body movements to make sure they’re okay.”

Rieger said you can never be too careful or too safe when swimming.

If you do recognize a drowning victim, never jump into the water to save him or her unless it is extremely shallow.

Rieger said panic can cause them to take you down with them. Instead she recommends extending a towel, a tree branch or throwing the person anything that floats, like a cooler, or even an empty, but capped 2-liter bottle.