SHADY HILLS — Kenny Cole, who will turn 2 in January, nearly died last Friday afternoon after he and his big sister, Arora, who is 3 and tall enough to reach the front door knob, slipped past their grandmother as she dozed on the couch.
Outside the door, freedom in all directions, dirt piles and old mattresses to climb, woods to explore, cats to chase, Arora and Kenny chose to turn right. They walked off the porch and went into the laundry room, which is attached to the house, and climbed through a broken screen to get into a room their father says they've seen only a few times and never expressed interest in, until this moment.
It was built in the 1970s, like the house, and was, at one time, beautiful. The children's father — Kenny Cole Sr., 44 — grew up in this house and hosted pool parties as a teenager. But it needed to be resurfaced. No one had swum in it for a decade. The water was black, mud at the bottom, algae crusted on the top. Fixing it was on the to-do list. But when you're a single dad of two toddlers and you're living with your mother and trying to run a junk yard business and the roof on your home is crumbling, other priorities get in the way.
Little Kenny jumped in the water because he wanted to find "fishies," Arora later told detectives.
Who knows how long Arora waited before she went back into the house and shook her grandmother awake.
"Kenny's in the pool!" Arora shouted. "Kenny's in the pool!"
It was 2:30 p.m. and Marty Cole, who is 69 and has problems with her balance, shot up from the couch and got to the pool as fast as she could. All she saw was blackness. No bubbles. She grabbed a long, wooden plank and fished in the murky water for her grandson. The pool is big, round and, except for a short shallow end, 8 feet deep.
Marty thought about diving in but she wasn't sure if she physically could. She called her son and all she could think to stammer was what Arora told her:
"Kenny's in the pool," she said.
Kenny Sr. had just finished his bacon, egg and cheese sandwich at the Big Champ corner store, across from his salvage yard, which is just a few blocks from the house. He ran to his tow truck with the 19-foot flat bed and floored it home, skidding in the yard, nearly crashing into the porch.
Kenny Sr. is a burly man with long, dark hair and a full beard. He hadn't been swimming since before his kids were born. But there, in his work uniform, Kenny Sr. ran straight to the pool and dived into the darkness.
He couldn't find his son. He groped around in the mud and came up for a breath. Then down again. Up for a breath. Down again. Up.
His foot bumped against his boy's body and he grabbed him and carried him up the steps and put him down on a work bench. Kenny Sr. was a Life Scout, one step below Eagle, in the Boy Scouts and remembered his CPR training and put two breaths into little Kenny, who was cold. Kenny Jr. began vomiting and his father turned him on his side, and when it ebbed he continued CPR. He couldn't tell if his son had a pulse or was breathing. Marty was on the phone with 911 and, in what seemed like seconds, two firetrucks were in the yard and paramedics took over working on Kenny Jr., who was soon on a helicopter headed to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Kenny Jr. wasn't breathing on his own when Dr. Joseph F. Perno, assistant medical director of the hospital's emergency center, got to him. The helicopter medics put a tube in the toddler's throat to get him more oxygen. He was unstable and critical.
No one knows how long Kenny Jr. was under the water.
"Anything less than five minutes, there's maybe some hope," Perno said.
He believed Kenny Jr. might have been under for that long — or longer. As Perno left the hospital, he was not optimistic about Kenny. He thought that his body would survive, but that he would either have significant brain damage or be brain dead.
Kenny Sr. held his son's small hand that night. He called his children's mother, who lives in Tennessee, to tell her what happened. He's not often a praying man, but he prayed that night and at 1 a.m. Saturday, Kenny Jr. opened his eyes. He wiggled. He was alert, eyes focused.
The tube breathing for him came out. On Sunday, the little boy was moved to a regular room. He was hungry. He ran around the room and in the hallway. He played peek-a-boo with the nurses, who told Kenny Sr. his son was a miracle.
On Monday afternoon, Kenny Jr. was released from the hospital with only a prescription for antibiotics, in case of infection.
Perno can't explain it.
"I'm thrilled," he said.
Maybe the boy wasn't under for as long as Perno guessed. And the water was 60 degrees — possibly cold enough to give Kenny Jr. an extra minute or two. Cold water can protect tissues, slow the heartbeat and redirect blood flow to the body's core. But the brain needs oxygen.
"This is a tremendous outcome … that I would not have guessed last Friday," he said.
The pool has been drained, the ripped screen covered with plywood and a padlock put on the door. The Pasco Sheriff's Office ruled it was accidental. Kenny Sr. is checking out preschools. On Wednesday evening he held his son, who is getting a guitar for Christmas, and said they're both fine and he's thankful.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.