TAMPA — The image of his son falling into the pool is still vivid 14 years later.
Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Mike Carroll spoke Wednesday at the South Tampa Family YMCA of the fear that filled him as his 3-year-old son slipped and went headfirst into the family pool.
"He'll be okay," Carroll thought at the time. "He can swim."
But either because of shock or fear, his son froze. He sank through the water, his arms and legs wide open. Carroll jumped in the water and caught his son before he reached the bottom, but those few seconds seemed like an eternity.
"It changed the way I think about child drownings," Carroll said. "Here was an infant who was taught to swim. He was like a little fish in the water. But when he went in headfirst, he never made an attempt to swim."
Carroll's son lived, but so many other children don't, he said at the news conference that launched the first phase of a statewide water safety campaign.
In Florida, drowning rates for children under age 5 are more than double the national average and are higher than in any other state in the nation, according to data from St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.
DCF and the Florida Department of Health have partnered with statewide YMCAs and others to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of water safety and keeping an eye on children at all times around water.
Though physical barriers around pools, teaching children to swim and knowing CPR are important, nothing is more effective than supervision, Carroll said.
The "Eyes on the Kids" program encourages adults to be constantly vigilant and not get distracted by texting, household chores or even quick actions like grabbing a bottle of water from inside.
This year, 28 calls about child drownings have come into the Florida Abuse Hotline, according to DCF.
While the statistics are staggering — Florida loses the equivalent of three preschool classrooms to drowning every year — reducing the numbers has been difficult, despite yearly campaigns and educational classes.
"I understand that with our geography and our weather and our access to water that we have challenges that other states may not have, but the rate of death in this state for child drownings is unacceptable," Carroll said. "We just have to do a better job of getting this message into neighborhoods, to families, to schools, in a more meaningful way so folks digest it and start following it. Because to me, it's a pretty easy fix."
The South Tampa Family YMCA, along with locations in Carrollwood and Valrico, offer classes that teach infants ages 6 months and older how to float and swim.
Kelly Hendra enrolled her 19-month-old daughter, Grace, in the six-week class.
"We have a pool in our back yard, and it's scary," Hendra, 42, said. "The progress she's shown to this point is just phenomenal."
Hendra said it's important that Grace take refresher swimming courses as she gets heavier and her center of gravity changes. The last week of the course is devoted to teaching kids to swim while they're wearing clothes and shoes.
"It's important that the child knows their skills still work even with their clothes on," instructor Deirdre Semeyn, 31, said. "Because the most likely scenario is they'll fall in full-clothed."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.