It was a hot summer day in 2019 when Riverview residents James and Marianne Gonzales decided to take their five children, visiting nephew, and James’ parents to their community pool. Marianne and her mother-in-law took the two older kids—their son Brennan, 9, and nephew, Uriah, 8—to the lap pool. James stayed in the kiddie pool with his father and the four little ones: Caiden (3), Asher (2), Dakota (3), and Breanna (4).
The couple had come to the pool often and knew the drill. They did headcounts. If a child wandered from one parent to the other, they had a system to signal the handoff so one parent had an eye on the child at all times.
Caiden was sitting on a deck chair in timeout when Asher and Dakota got into an altercation. James turned his attention to them for seconds to tell them to cut it out.
When he turned around, Caiden was gone.
James scanned the area, heart in his mouth. He leaped up onto the deck and to his horror, saw Caiden beneath him in four feet of water, struggling silently. Though the pool area was packed with neighbors, not one person had seen the little boy fall in and sink to the bottom. It took James a moment to jump in and pull him out. An X-Ray and Cat Scan technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital-South, James immediately put Caiden on his knee and began CPR. It felt like forever, but Caiden eventually coughed up water and sat up. He looked at his father and said, “Daddy, I was calling for you to help me.”
“I lost it,” the devastated James says today. “I was beside myself. He was my responsibility and I damn near let him drown.”
It was the simplest of accidents, one that could happen to anybody. For the Gonzales family, the story had a happy ending, but it took time to heal. Caiden was scared of the pool for months, and as for James and Marianne, they slept beside their son in his room for the next five nights to ensure he had none of the signs of secondary drowning—fluid in the lungs, lethargic behavior, fever or hoarseness in his voice.
Even after it became clear that Caiden was fine, James continued to feel depressed and often had nightmares. One thing that helped him recover from the situation was Marianne’s support. The second thing? Doubling up on water safety measures.
“Even with us being proactive, we managed to lose a moment and almost lost a child,” Marianne says. “We grew up thinking drowning is flailing in the water. People don’t know how silent drowning is.”
The couple hired an instructor from Angelfish Swim School in Valrico to come to their house and teach all the kids to swim confidently. They repeat lessons annually. They do frequent head checks and “voice checks” to make sure all five children are accounted for. One of them wears a bracelet with a whistle on it at all times when around the pool, and that person is the designated water watcher. They have alarms on their doors and locks on their fences. And they want everyone to know that drowning is quick, silent, and can happen to anyone. “When they say it happens fast, they’re not kidding,” says James.
Water Safety Tips from BayCare Kids Wellness and Safety Specialist Michelle Sterling.
Watch kids in and around water without being distracted not just in pools, but also in ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Open water has currents, drop-offs, and visibility changes that can confuse a swimmer.
Choose one adult to be the water watcher who keeps a constant, undistracted eye on the children in the water. Rotate this position at intervals among the adults present.
Teach children to swim and refresh muscle memory annually with swim lessons until you are confident. BayCare Kids Wellness and Safety Specialists teach water safety classes to preschool children at the Children’s Board Family Resource Centers located throughout Hillsborough County. Visit familysupporthc.org for more information on water safety classes available at your local resource center.
Secure your pool area with pool fences that have self-closing gates and secure locks. Install door alarms to alert you if a child exits the house, and make sure the alarms work.
Empty out any kiddie pools, buckets, planters, or any other receptacle in which water can collect. Toddlers are top-heavy and can drown in as little as one inch of water.
Put away any pool toys, noodles, floats, and balls that may linger in your pool to prevent little ones from reaching in to get a toy.
Learn CPR. BayCare Kids Wellness and Safety Specialists teach a CPR and First Aid class at Children’s Board Family Resource Centers located throughout Hillsborough County. Visit familysupporthc.org for information on CPR classes available at your local resource center.
Lastly, if you are ever in the position of having to search for a missing child, whether they’ve been gone for a few minutes or a few hours, always look in the water first. Search the pool and any nearby body of water before you look within your house.