EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 21, 2013

NH sees increase in drownings

Heavy rains, swift water to blame in some cases

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — There’s trouble around the water this summer in New Hampshire.

State officials last week called a press conference to highlight water safety following 11 drownings. That’s up from eight last year at this time.

One involved the death of a Mattapan teenager who was pulled from Country Pond in Newton over the July 4 weekend.

A diver also was missing Friday off Portsmouth near the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which connects Maine and New Hampshire. What started as a search for a diver who did not surface while checking lobster traps was being called a recovery mission Friday afternoon.

But it’s not just an issue on lakes and ponds.

In Windham last week, a landscaper helped revive a toddler who had fallen into a pool.

“We are seeing a spike right now,” Salem fire marshal Jeff Emanuelson said.

He couldn’t recall a similar summer in his 26 years in the fire service.

“It does seem to be an anomaly,” Emanuelson said.

New Hampshire Marine Patrol Capt. Tim Dunleavy said what’s unique this year is nine drownings in June and July, up from four a year ago in those months.

The state typically sees more drownings when weather is cold and people become submerged and suffer from hypothermia, he said.

Officials see a combination of factors contributing to what they’ve described as an alarming increase in drownings.

One is the summer’s weather, alternating hot, muggy days with torrential downpours that have swelled rivers, lakes and streams.

“The majority of those we are seeing are folks drawn to the water, swollen rivers and streams, with extreme currents,” Dunleavy said.

Emanuelson cautions people about the flash flooding danger.

“Every day, we seem to have a severe thunderstorm watch or warning coupled with a flash flood warning,” he said.

That adds up to danger people need to be mindful of, Emanuelson said.

“Anytime there’s moving water,” he said, “just stay out of that area.”

Karen Jenozese is owner of Concord-based Swim NH, which she said trains 300 to 500 lifeguards annually in northern New England.

“Even if you are a good swimmer, it is difficult to swim in a current,” Jenozese said. “It’s too dangerous, too unpredictable.”

Dunleavy said people should be extremely familiar with the bodies of water where they are swimming.

Rivers can change overnight from a sandy to murky bottom, he said. “Our rivers and streams change with high water.”

Other drowning victims have been in canoes and kayaks, without life jackets, Jenozese said.

“No one should be in a canoe or a kayak, no matter how great a swimmer they are, without a life jacket on,” she said.

Parents have to closely watch children around the water.

“Even when a lifeguard is present, that doesn’t take out the adult factor,” Emanuelson said. “A lifeguard can’t see everything.”

Jenozese agrees.

“Children under the age of 10 should be within arm’s reach of their parents,” Jenozese said.

Windham fire Chief Tom McPherson recalled how a child died last year in a pool accident.

“I think when it comes to pool safety, we need to secure gates or remove ladders,” McPherson said.

“It’s tough because we know the high level of energy small children have and their inquisitive natures,” he said. “Sometimes as parents you don’t always have enough eyes to watch every move.”

Dunleavy wants families to consider life jackets for kids who are around the water. “Life jackets don’t just have to be worn on boats,” he said.

Watch the drinking, too, officials warn.

Dunleavy said people who are boating or swimming can become impaired faster in conditions that combine humidity, glare and alcohol.

“Be careful about alcohol consumption,” Emanuelson said.

Dunleavy encourages people to choose to swim at beaches where there are lifeguards. New Hampshire has a wealth of those opportunities for swimmers, he said.

Jenozese would like to see everyone trained in CPR and first aid so they can help when a person is drowning.

She also said people should know the signs of drowning.

“When someone is drowning, it looks like they are playing in a wave,” she said. “They jump up and down with their arms extended to their side, their legs are directly underneath them.”

With heads back, they are unable to call out for help.

“People who are on the beach ignore those warning signs,” she said.

Small children also can appear OK, when in reality they are struggling.

“When they are face first, they look like they are doggy paddling, but they are in a life-and-death struggle,” she said.

The situation has the attention of public safety officials throughout the state.

Dunleavy said representatives of New Hampshire Fish & Game, state parks, the marine patrol and state police participated in the press conference to heighten awareness.

He said Col. Robert Quinn, chief of the state police, asked his agency to give special attention and bring a message of safety to community swimming areas.

Concord Fire Department officials also participated in the awareness effort. “They had back-to-back drownings,” Dunleavy said.