Kid Drownings

After decades of failure, the well-intentioned still don't get it

Before the question can even be asked, Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan barks out the answer: "It's 85033." Khan, a broad man with a thick shock of black hair, cornflower blue eyes, and the quintessential fireman's mustache, has been working on drowning prevention and awareness for 20 years. He is the face seen on the evening news for 20 years -- every time a child dies, or there is a water safety segment on the evening news. He has seen it all, watched the trends, and keeps an annual tally.

"I take each one personally," says Khan, his hands clenching around a plastic water bottle.

Longtime Fire-Pal activist Forrest Richardson wants a unified effort.
Longtime Fire-Pal activist Forrest Richardson wants a unified effort.
"Near-drowning" is a misunderstood phrase that often means a life like Tara Axsom's at Hacienda de Los Angeles.
Jackie Mercandetti
"Near-drowning" is a misunderstood phrase that often means a life like Tara Axsom's at Hacienda de Los Angeles.

According to Khan, 85033 has long been the worst problem. Phoenix zip code 85033, and its neighbors 85031 and 85035, makes up a low-income area pocketed with more than 1,700 pools, only about 10 percent of which have any kind of barrier.

"I will go on the record. Do poor kids drown? Yes. Unfortunately, the numbers support that. Is it one area? Yes, it's 85033," says Khan.

The statistics published by the Arizona Department of Health Services show that the numbers have not significantly gone down since 1990, and the Phoenix Fire Department's statistics show that the highest concentrations are centered in one tiny area of only a few dozen blocks.

But the statistics so far have not paid attention to any socioeconomic factors, neighborhood commonalities, or any other in-depth research keys. Without these kinds of recordkeeping procedures, it has taken a long time to get even the scant correlations that are just beginning to be drawn. Without adequate tracking and research, the problem can barely be defined, much less solved.

There is clearly a crack in the system, and more than 100 kids per year -- the number of incidents the fire department responds to annually -- are falling through it.

At the center of the "crack" is the "C Shift." The C Shift works at Station 25 on 63rd Avenue and Indian School, in the heart of 85033. They get more drowning calls than any other shift in the nation.

Branden Leon, a firefighter and paramedic who's worked the C Shift for a year, is on duty tonight. He serves up a plate of chicken enchiladas for the station's dinner. When asked about children drowning, his impish smile drops and his hand pauses with a spoonful of tomatillo rice halfway from the pan to his plate. "Man, I've already been on six."

Leon rescued his first near-drowning victim when he was still in training to be a firefighter. "It was my apartment complex. We were barbecuing when I heard my wife scream. I turned around, and there was a kid floating in the pool."

The child's mother pulled the boy out, and was crying, trying to get him to breathe. Leon ran over, pushed everyone out of the way, and started doing CPR and rescue breathing on the 3-year-old child. "I just remember yelling at everyone, Get out of the way!'"

After a few minutes of CPR, the child began to wake up, and vomited in Leon's mouth.

"I didn't think I could handle that, but I had to. I just thought, Hey, it's ice cream, it's my favorite kind of ice cream.' And I just kept going." His efforts were successful. The boy survived and seemed to be fine. He wrote Leon a card the next day. "It said, Thanks for saving my life -- good luck with your training. Love Nathan.'" But that first look at a drowning took a toll on Leon.

"When I went into the bathroom after that to clean up, I looked at my face in the mirror -- covered in vomit -- and I just cried."

Dan Donohue, a veteran firefighter on Engine 725, is clearly sick of drowning calls. "It's all about responsibility. You have to be humble and say, Yes, it can happen to me.'" Though he says that supervision is the number one thing to work on, he also echoes the need for additional barriers. "Barriers give the parents time when the supervision lapses. Without barriers, forget it. Your kid is dead."

When asked why the people in Maryvale aren't getting the message about drownings, several more theories pop up from various firefighters.

Jeff Olson usually works neighboring Station 26, but is subbing in tonight at Station 25. He grew up in the Maryvale neighborhood, and even bought his parents' house years later. He blames the problem on many issues surrounding economics. "When people moved out here in the '60s, this was the nice place to live -- this was the best. Everyone had decent money, and they put in pools. That's why there are so many out here." But, according to Olson, when newer, nicer neighborhoods got built up around Maryvale, the homes fell into disrepair and the property values went down.

"Now you have people who could never before afford a home with a pool getting into these houses and they don't know how dangerous it is," says Olson.

Other low-income areas in the Valley never had the stock of pools that were part of Maryvale's original middle-class status.

The pools built in that era were almost never equipped with pool fences. If they were, when the neighborhood slid, so did the condition of the fence. Over the next 20 years, the pools in Maryvale were largely ignored as single-family homes gave way to rentals and multi-family living arrangements.

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Diane Moore
Diane Moore

The solution to this is soooooo simple, yet seems to be too much trouble for these parents. All they have to do is WATCH their children... and be sure they are taught safety in and around water. My grandbaby is 2 1/2 years and can swim like a fish. He is just finishing an ISR Swimming course this week... I do NOT believe in fences, they give false security. I raised 5 extremely active (and sometimes naughty) children without a fence around our pool, and they are all grown up now... I can appreciate that parents are busy sometimes, but it only takes a few seconds to safely strap a baby/toddler in their high chair, or put a baby in their crib or playpen... and KEEP the doors and windows locked. When my grandbaby visits our home, I wear the key to the backyard around my neck... so I know its locked. Also, I am aware of where he is EVERY single second while he is in my care. Thats all there is to it.

Susan Freyer
Susan Freyer

Don't you sleep? Ever? Children get out when parents and children are supposedly sleeping. It happens. But yeah. It's sooooooo simple.

David Stone
David Stone

Or maybe it's the shitty parents who are having too many kids? Jesus Christ, you fucking Arizona idiots make me sick.


were u with my cousin when this happened? what was her reaction? where was steven ( her Husband) or clifford? what did she say? i dont mean to bother you or bring up something unpleasent but i have heard it was no accident what happened to the boys. and i am trying to find out the truth

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