1. Pasco

Child drownings have more than doubled this year in Pasco. County responds, offers tips for parents.

Published Sep. 25, 2018

Hunter Lane was a curious boy, his parents told deputies, fascinated by a world he was just beginning to discover.

That might have been why, on April 11, the 2-year-old left his toys on the living room floor of his Hudson home and wandered outside, toward the pool.

His mother, 34-year-old Cynthia Day, found him face down in the water a few minutes past noon. She had been sick in the bathroom while the toddler played. He was pronounced dead an hour later.

That night, nine miles south in New Port Richey, Axton Mata nearly met the same fate.

As his older brothers bathed in a tub at their home, the 1-year-old climbed in. Their mother, 30-year-old Kelly Mata, went to check on them and saw him in the water, skin purple and not breathing.

She pulled him out, and suddenly her son started throwing up water. He lived.

Child drownings and near-drownings in Pasco County have more than doubled since this time last year, according to county data. From January through Sept. 20, the county reported 12 drownings or near-drownings of children under 12. Four of those cases ended in death. From January through the same date in 2017, Pasco County reported four child drownings or near-drownings, with one fatality.

As in the incidents on April 11, the difference between life and death often is a matter of minutes. Safety officials have been taking steps to tell parents what they can do before the clock starts ticking, and since they began their efforts, there's been a decline in cases.

• • •

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office handled eight of the 12 cases, and records show they have common threads.

Distracted parents, unlocked doors, busy pool parties — these are the makings of a drowned child. In those flitters of forgetfulness, kids who shouldn't end up in the water do.

"A majority of what we see are distractions," said Corey Dierdorff, a spokesperson for Pasco County Fire Rescue.

It often works like this, Dierdorff said: All the adults at a pool party or outdoor barbecue assume someone else is watching the kids — meaning no one is.

"The next thing you know, you're looking for a kid, and everybody's blood pressure is up," Dierdorff said.

And when parents look away, responsibility can fall to other children who might not grasp the stakes. Three of the Pasco County cases involved siblings who saw the victims go under.

In March, a 4-year-old girl saw her little brother slip into a pool as he ran around outside a party. She didn't tell anyone. In April, another girl ran inside to her mother because she thought her drowning brother was playing dead.

"It's the parents' responsibility to watch the parents' kids," Dierdorff said. "We can't rely on our children."

• • •

County officials recommend parents install safety measures for backup. Locks on doors leading outside, and on gates leading to water, are critical.

At least two cases came from children opening doors left unlocked. Those two cases shared another distinction: The kids fell into natural bodies of water, not pools.

In March, a 1-year-old girl made her way from her Port Richey home and to the lake behind it, where she drowned in her pink clothes. In April, a 1-year-old boy from New Port Richey managed to open the front door of his house and drowned in the pond across the street. He had taken a toy with him.

"Don't think your family's immune because you don't have a pool in your backyard," Dierdorff said.

Around their pools and other bodies of water, he said, parents can set up nets, fences and alarms that can be triggered when entrances open or water is disturbed. Those measures weren't present in most cases this year.

An alarm can become especially important because drownings aren't often the kind of thrashing-and-screaming fests shown in movies.

"A lot of times it's very quiet," Dierdorff said. "It happens very quickly. It happens without anyone knowing."

• • •

In the wake of the child drownings earlier this year, the county made a push for prevention. Fire Rescue released a video on social media at the end of June showing a staged pool party where a child falls in when adults aren't looking. And the agency partnered with the Pasco County Parks and Recreation Department to encourage participation in swimming classes for kids.

"This year, we really decided to push it," said Alicia Schuering, the county's aquatics technician. Schuering's department runs swimming lessons from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and enrollment this year increased by about 25 percent — from 261 participants to 326, almost all children.

"It's scary for us, and as educators we want to spread the word as much as possible," Schuering said.

She said that floating on your back is perhaps the most important water skill a young child can learn.

"It's a recovery position … to keep their airway above water until someone can come help," she said.

Had Hunter Lane not drowned that April day in Hudson, he would have learned those skills this summer, figures his father, 33-year-old Matthew Lane. The elder Lane was at work when Cynthia Day, his girlfriend, called him about their son. Not long after the incident, they moved out.

"I just couldn't be at the house anymore," he said. "Going out on the patio and seeing the pool, that's where your mind goes."

Parents, he said, need to make sure their pools are safe and their children can swim, just in case. Kids don't always realize how deadly water can be, he said, much like his own curious son.

"He always wanted to see what the next thing was. And I think that's what happened, sad to say," he said. "He was an adventurer — or a daredevil."

Quips like that are how he deals with it all. He hasn't swam since.

Contact Justin Trombly at Follow @JustinTrombly.


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