ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. When a child slips underwater, there’s no thrashing about or calling out for help as seen in the movies.
Within 30 seconds, the child loses consciousness. Within four to six minutes, he or she suffers irreparable brain damage.
Within 10 minutes, he or she can be brain-dead.
“If the child is not breathing by the time we get there as a result of CPR or other things we cannot understand,” said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Paramedic Bill Lockhart, “the soul of the child — the thing that brings joy to the parents — is long gone.”
“It’s very quick, very silent,” said Michelle Feczko, health and wellness coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange. “And in most cases, adults are around — each of whom thinks that somebody else is watching the water.”
These are the calls for help that no one ever wants to have to answer. These are the calls that haunt tough old firefighters and seasoned cops, filling their memories with the faces of all the children they saved — and those they couldn’t.
The seductive tug of water is proving to be especially deadly this year for Orange County’s youngest, who see only the magically shimmering surface but never the threat underneath.
With temperatures heating up and the year not even half over, six Orange County children ages 5 and under have accidentally drowned — already matching the total for all of last year, according to the Orange County coroner.
Last Tuesday, the party balloons and the tables piled high with platters of barbecue blurred together as Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Gunzel raced through the Villa Park house he was summoned to with the report of a child not breathing. He pushed past the people crowding the living room and burst into the back yard. That’s when he saw her — tiny, drenched and not breathing, her skin already gray.
It was a birthday party and the pool was crowded with kids and pool toys. No one noticed 4-year-old Aurora Pruitt slip under the water. No one noticed until everyone got out — except Aurora.
The chaos surrounded Gunzel but he tuned everything out — except her. He had to do everything right — for her.
When Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Johnson rushed into the back yard his heart sank. “Not again.”
“When you get those calls, honestly, you don’t want to be the first one there,” Johnson said, emotion choking his voice. “But you do everything to get there as fast as you can because you want to help.”
No time to think about the Mother’s Day 10 years ago or of the 2-year-old Anaheim boy who drowned in a backyard pool and the desperate cries of his parents. Johnson went to work, trying to breathe life back into little Aurora. Gunzel did the compressions.
“C’mon,” Gunzel said. “She was such a little girl.”
Paramedics arrived. Johnson scooped Aurora up in his arms — she was so tiny — and laid her down on a table. A frantic trip to the hospital. Hours later, Aurora died.
“There are really no words of comfort,” said Lockhart, who has responded to many drownings in 29 years as a county and city paramedic.
With so many people around, how could this happen? But it does — and it can happen to anyone. All it takes is a second — a tiny distraction. Some pool owners have taken to hiring professional lifeguards at $10 to $15 per hour for their backyard parties, according to firefighters and water-safety experts.
It’s a good idea, but not necessary, experts say.
“This isn’t really a lifeguarding issue,” said Eric Bauer, lifeguard battalion chief for the Newport Beach Fire Department. “You just need to have someone available to grab a kid who falls in the water. The bottom line is rapid intervention.”
Julie Kinley of Orange couldn’t possibly hold her 1-year-old son Jake any tighter or shower him with enough kisses.
Just seconds were the difference from being able to hold him and losing him forever when she stepped away to answer the phone and riffle through some papers earlier this month.
In that second — a second parents take for granted every day — he crawled out a screen door and fell into their backyard Jacuzzi. Kinley screamed — and dropped the phone.
She jumped in and fished Jake out of the water. She thumped him on the back, and water gurgled out. She called 911. Four firefighters burst in. Kinley collapsed on the floor. They spent the night in the hospital — but Jake was OK.
“The guilt set in,” said Kinley, a mother of two. “No one was blaming me, but all I kept thinking was he shouldn’t have been in there. I shouldn’t have had to call you guys.”
Now Kinley can rattle off drowning facts and figures. And she tells everyone she comes across — because she doesn’t want to read about another drowning — or a close call.
“I’d see these drowning stories on TV and I used to think — where were the parents?” Kinley said. “But now I know how quickly it can happen — just like that.”
The Orange County Fire Authority is in the midst of their annual drowning prevention campaign — reminding residents that drownings are preventable. For more than a decade, CHOC has promoted a water-watch program in which designated adults wear tags around their necks.
“It’s a symbolic thing — when they wear the tag, they’re accepting the responsibility of being in charge of the water,” said Feczko, of CHOC, which distributes hundreds of the free tags every year to Orange County residents who can request them by calling the hospital.
“One’s person’s eyes should always be on the water,” Feczko said.
Not every call ends in tragedy.
There are the successes — when a mother pulls her baby from a bathtub and does CPR — preventing brain damage — or when a baby sitter grabs a child from the edge of a pool.
The children grow up maybe not ever fully realizing how close they came to death — or that they are what drive the rescue workers to keep trying, because lives can be saved.
“You have to appreciate the moments because, despite all our prevention efforts, we are distracted for that moment and we lose the opportunity for more moments to cherish,” Lockhart said. “Moments matter — in so many ways.”