Kid Drownings

The Greathouse family met Father Carl Carlozzi on the evening of April 24. It was the night their two toddler sons, Dylan and Steven, drowned in their unfenced swimming pool in Maryvale.

Carlozzi, a gray-haired man with a calming demeanor and kind smile, gets called in to help survivors deal with unspeakable tragedy. He's the Phoenix Fire Department chaplain.

When firefighters and Carlozzi arrived at the Greathouses' home on West Verde Lane, CPR was being done by neighbors, but neither boy was breathing or responding. The boys were taken to different hospitals, and Carlozzi waited with the boys' mother for word, even though they both knew what that word would be.

"She kept saying, I think he's dead.' What could I say? Because it was obvious that he was," Carlozzi says.

The boys were the third and fourth drowning casualties in Phoenix this year.

Carlozzi was there to help pick up the pieces, something he does far too often. By year's end there would be 12 tiny corpses in Phoenix and 19 in the Valley.

"Usually I ride with the family to the hospital and they're saying things like, I murdered my baby, I murdered my baby.' It's probably the most intense pain that I see anyone experience."

The double-drowning incident rocked the evening news. What was so shocking about it was not that someone did something wrong and children died; nothing was done "wrong." The boys were thought to be in bed, napping. Instead, they were floating in the backyard pool.

Carlozzi says that, most of the time, a child drowning isn't about clear negligence. "Even if you do everything right, you can still get distracted -- five minutes later, the paramedics are at your house doing CPR on your 3-year-old. It could happen to any one of us. People ask, Why me?' but the only answer I can give is: Why not you?'"

The leading cause of death in children under the age of 5 in Arizona is drowning. In fact, Arizona has led the nation in childhood drownings every year for as long as records have been kept -- since 1970.

Virtually every local television station and newspaper of any standing, as well as a veritable who's who of Arizona businesses from the Salt River Project to Circle K, has adopted or mounted community-wide efforts to prevent childhood drownings beginning in 1980.

Entering its third decade, the civic crusade to curb this litany of mortality in Arizona is America's longest-running public health campaign according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which maintains federal records on drownings as well as a host of other public health issues.

And yet the unprecedented length of the alliance among media, community leaders and corporate benefactors to save young lives in Arizona is an unremitting failure. The level of good intentions has been exceeded only by the degree of ongoing tragedy.

A yearlong investigation by New Times reveals a startling list of problems.

After 32 years of recordkeeping, community leaders have made almost no use of the data available. In fact, there is little agreement or knowledge of why kids continue to drown in Arizona. From the beginning, for example, parents have been admonished to be vigilant when their children are around water, a worthy enough message on the surface -- inspiring campaigns such as Water Watchers. Yet the vast majority of incidents do not occur during backyard barbecues or while children are playing in the pool. In more than 70 percent of childhood drownings, the victims were believed to be somewhere inside the home, even asleep in their bedrooms.

With no clear grasp of why kids are drowning, community leaders have opted for solutions they cannot explain with no track record of effectiveness. The first media personality to raise the alarm of pool safety, television broadcaster Dave Munsey, chose coloring books to popularize his message in 1980. Today, he candidly admits the coloring books simply popped into his head without any particular research into their applicability and certainly without any follow-up data to support their continued use. More than 22 years later, the state's largest water utility still passes out its own coloring books as part of its public relations campaign on pool safety. The coloring book puts the prevention issue in the hands of the child instead of the parents.

Because no methodical research has ever been conducted, community leaders have relied upon good intentions and common sense, a formula that has sustained disaster. For example, the state's largest daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic, teamed with the state's most popular television station, KPNX-TV Channel 12, both properties of Gannett, to coordinate Target Zero, their pool safety outreach. This combination of public relations and civic journalism ended on Labor Day weekend, the "common-sense" ending of the swimming season. But, as already mentioned, drownings are not tied to recreation, per se. Toddlers wander out of their homes and into pools year-round. This year's record of fatalities shows eight of 12 drowning deaths were in the nine "off-season" months.

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Quetta Carpenter