“We were all around the pool, we were all watching the kids, but there was a 60 second gap where I thought she was watching him, and she thought I was watching him,” said Stew Leonard Jr, who lost son Stewie to a drowning accident in 1989. Since then, the Leonards have led efforts to bring awareness of water safety to families everywhere with books and programs on their website, Stewie the Duck.
During the fireworks on Fourth of July weekend in 2006, Danbury teen, Chuck Bennett, drowned at Candlewood Lake. He was 16 years old and had grown up around the water all of his life. His neighbor, Ben Mandell, remembers that night well.
“They brought him out of the water and laid him at our feet. He had grown up here. It was so tragic, and hard to understand. He was a big kid, strong. They said the weeds kept him down, but who knows. The moms now, they keep those weeds clean, and the Red Cross comes and gives swimming lessons.”
According to Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection, nine people in the U.S. drown every day and drowning is the leading cause of death of children.
Brookfield Police Captain John Puglisi, the head of the department's scuba team, said that weeds can tangle swimmers up, and unless that person is a strong swimmer, they can be a problem. "That's a big concern for people who live in the coastal areas,” Puglisi said.
Besides the weeds, teens often take risks they shouldn't. Residents of Southbury and Newtown say teens jump off the iron bridge over Lake Zoar all the time.
Ellie Lewis, owner of the Sandy Hook Diner that is right up the street from the bridge, said when someone jumps in, they can touch bottom. "Kids even climb up to the top and jump from there,” Lewis said.
Puglisi adds that typically when there are drownings at Candlewood Lake, it's because people were doing things they should not have been doing. "Jumping off rocks and boating without life jackets can be a problem. Teenagers don't know that just because it's 90 degrees outside doesn't mean the water has warmed up. If they are on a rope and swinging out, they can let go too soon and get hurt on the rocks, or swing so far out that it is really deep and they may not be able to hold their breath that long," Puglisi said. "People jumping off rocks into 15 feet of water can find that it's a shocking 50 degrees because the lakes are river fed, and that alone can take their breath away.”
Leonard and Puglisi said that supervision is the #1 key to water safety. “Cutbacks in some towns can mean fewer lifeguards, so you can't drop kids off,” Puglisi said. “There really isn't an age where you can stop watching.”
At the Naugatuck YMCA, Aquatic Director Barbara Bachuretz said many adults wait to give their children swimming lessons because of their own fear of the water. “Even toddlers can learn to tread water," she said. "Even they can be taught water safety. Children can start learning at six months old.”
Things have changed since many adults were kids. Laurie Shaw of Southbury has three children and they live right on Lake Zoar. “When I was little, even at seven or eight years old, I used to go down to the dock and go in the water. I couldn't swim but I would hold on to the side and kick. My dad came down there one time and picked me up and threw me out into the water, and it was pretty much sink or swim,” she said.
Most parents would agree that technique is best forgotten. Today swim classes abound and even people living in the most land-locked towns can find them.
Bachuretz said that learning water safety is important no matter where you live. "There is water everywhere," Bachuretz said.
Monroe mother Laura Florio-Ellis recently visited Wolfe Park with her children who are all under 6 years old. She was horrified at the amount of children around the shallow pool and realized she would not be able to watch all of her own at once. “The kids need to be in the water, it's good for them,” she said. “They have been taking lessons but they are not strong swimmers. I just can't watch them all with a two-year old running around in and out of the water.”
Florio-Ellis looked into the Infant Swimming Resource and was thrilled with what she found. She contacted Dena Blum-Rothman, who promised her she could have her two year old “pool safe” within three to six weeks, and that her children would be safe in the water forever.
The Infant Swimming Resource claims to have taught over 300,000 children with a 100 percent success rate, and they have received over 800 affidavits stating that children were spared drowning because they had learned this technique.
“Drownings happen so fast, it really is the silent killer because all of the struggle is underwater,” said Dena Blum-Rothman, the only teacher of this method in Connecticut. “This technique works because we are teaching their muscles, not their brains. It's like learning to walk, once you can do that, you can always do that.”
“In order to participate in the program an infant must be able to roll from back to front, and back to front again, and must be able to sit up. Depending on the individual child, we can take them from six months through six years.”
Betsy Pesapani, President of Oxford's Razor Swim Team through Parks and Recreation, said children have to know what to do to get out of the water. "We take five year olds who can dog paddle and in six weeks time, they will be swimming," she said.
One of the biggest obstacles to teaching children to swim is fear, and it is usually the fear of the parents who pass that fear on to their children, swimming experts say.
Bachuretz said that it is never too late to swim. "In these days of fractured families, going to the beach is fun for everyone. I had a mom who was left out of so much because of her fear of the water. Swimming can be a life long enjoyment, and taking children for lessons is often a catalyst to adult learning.”