Synopsis: Seven hundred children under age 15 drown in the US each year, most within sight of a parent or other adult. Experts discuss one major reason: drowning doesn’t look like most people picture it, and so are unaware the child is in trouble.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Dr. Francesco Pia, water safety educator; Mario Vittone, Retired Marine Safety Specialist, US Coast Guard

Link for more information:




Nancy Benson: For many Americans, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. We fire up the grill, get out the insect repellant, and fill up the backyard pool. Others grab the sunscreen, pack up the kids and head for the beach. However, summer isn’t carefree for parents. Most of us keep an eye on our children whenever they’re in the water. But sometimes, even that isn’t enough to prevent a tragedy.


Francesco Pia: The drowning person inevitably was surrounded by baiters who did not realize that the drowning was taking place.

Benson: Dr. Francesco Pia made a discovery that revolutionized water safety in the Early 1970’s. It happened by chance when he filmed rescues at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, where he was a lifeguard and trainer for 21 years.


Pia: On the film there’s one instance where two children are drowning. Their parents are ten feet away, fifteen feet away from them, looking directly at them and they don’t have any idea that their children are engaging in a life and death struggle. And typically, investigations by state health departments and coroners have confirmed that fact that either lifeguards were looking at the struggle and didn’t recognize it, or parents were looking at the struggle and didn’t recognize it.


Benson: Around seven hundred children under the age of fifteen drown each year in the United States, about half of them within seventy-five feet of a parent or another adult. How could they miss it? It turns out that people who are drowning don’t look the way most of us think they do, as Pia’s film graphically displayed for the first time. Hollywood portrays drowning with thrashing and cries for help, but Pia says if you can hear someone calling, they aren’t drowning, at least not yet.


Pia: Swimmers in distress are the ones that we see in the movies where there is someone who is lifting up their arm and waving for help, calling out for help. The reason they can do that, that is, the reason they can lift up their arms and wave for help is because they have a swimming or floating skill. And if you have a swimming or floating skill by definition you’re not yet drowning. They can also call out for help because they’re able to keep their mouth above the surface of the water, and call out for help.


Mario Vittone: Drowning is very quiet. There can be some splashing but there’s certainly no waving there’s no calls for help and almost no speech of any kind.


Benson: That’s Mario Vittone, a retired marine safety specialist with the United States Coast Guard.

Vittone: Drowning is a deceptively quiet event it really doesn’t take the form we see on television and movies, and the misperceptions about it reach everywhere. It’s not just the people in the general public I’ve seen rescue training films by rescue organizations and the portrayal of a drowning victim for the sake of the training video is completely off.


Benson: Pia says when someone’s drowning, their response is completely instinctive. You may think someone would certainly cry out for help, but the respiratory system is focused on preventing suffocation first. An outcry isn’t possible.


Pia: They can’t call out for help because their mouth is sinking below and reappearing above the surface of the water, during which time when the mouth goes below the surface of the water, the person will close their mouth. When their arms press down on the surface of the water and their mouth breaks the surface of the water they will exhale inhale, and then sink below the surface of the water again.


Benson: Drowning people don’t thrash in the water, either. Instead, they may look like they’re dog paddling. The victim is simply trying to lift himself up.


Pia: When the brain perceives that we’re not getting enough air in to breathe, that we are suffocating, automatically the brain sends out an order to the person who is drowning get the mouth above the surface of the water so that we can continue to live and breath. So, what the drowning person does is they extend their arms either partially out to the sides or fully out to the sides, and attempt to use the surface of the water as a platform where they can press down and raise their mouth up above the surface of the water.

Vittone: Heads bobbing up and out of the water, minor splashing, or like their climbing a ladder that isn’t there is another common look. But it can also look like they’re just treading water. I’ve seen it to where they’re just, they’re heads are almost always back looking up, is one good indication, because they’re trying to get their mouth up and looking back brings your mouth up. Looking down at the pool from the lifeguards stand lets say, just someone looking up in the air that can be drowning. There’s other things to look for. Eyes glassed over, if he has long hair maybe over their eyes and the hair over the eyes is an indication to watch someone for drowning because usually you tend to wipe that away, but if you don’t control your arm movement because your drowning you won’t wipe it away.


Benson: All of those pointers on what drowning really looks like can certainly help keep kids safe this summer, but Pia says prevention is a lot better. If a child experiences a near drowning, mostly likely a lot of failures have already occurred. Perhaps the pool isn’t surrounded by a fence with a self-closing, self-latching, childproof lock. Perhaps adults weren’t around at all, or weren’t supervising closely.

Pia: Supervision means being actively engaged in watching the child. The statistics that have been gathered over the years by CDC and other organizations show that rather than there being a lack of supervision by the parents there’s been a lapse in supervision, and the lapse is generally five minutes or less. So, for parents they have to realize that they cannot be on a cell phone talking when children are swimming in the pool. They cannot be reading a book; you cannot be engaged in any other activities other than watching children in the backyard pool.


Vittone: One of the things that happens a lot is the parents believe that being there, close by, is the same thing as watching because there’s this perception of “Well I’ll hear them if they’re in trouble,” and actually that’s the sign: if you don’t hear them they’re in trouble. Kids in the water make noise they play the scream they run around and when they get quiet it’s either because their fine and quiet or their not, but if they certainly will not be making noise if they’re drowning. They won’t be yelling they won’t be crying they won’t be screaming they won’t be making those sounds of any kind.


Benson: Above all, Pia says, parents must know CPR. He says there’s no worse feeling in the world than to haul a child out of the water and have to wait helplessly for paramedics to arrive. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a complete website on water safety at That’s If you’d like to know more about “On Drowning,” Dr. Frank Pia’s video that started it all, you can find a link on our webpage, radio health Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.


One thought on “15-21 Segment 2: Drowning: It Doesn’t Look Like You Think

Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.