After My Son Died in a Pool I Started Teaching About Water Safety

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On July 28, 2007, my family’s life changed forever.

It was a scorching summer afternoon at our new home. We sat around our backyard pool and closely watched as our 6-year-old son, Zachary, showed off his swimming skills while I rocked our 2-month-old daughter, Sydney, in my arms. There was no sign of the tragedy that was about to unfold.

A peaceful afternoon was shattered by screams and chaos. Zachary’s arm had become entrapped by the powerful suction of the drain in the pool. While I raced to shut the power off, my husband, Brian, dove in to rescue Zachary. Tragically, no one could override the several hundreds of pounds of suction from the drain.


Little boy on a boat

The author’s son’s arm got stuck in a pool drain.

Courtesy of the author



As parents, we thought we did everything we could to protect our child from drowning. We enrolled him in swimming classes, explained the rules of the pool, and ensured he was always supervised by an adult. Until then, we were unaware of the potential dangers below the surface. It was that summer that our family and neighbors learned of the dangers of “drain entrapment” — a term that will forever haunt us.

We started a foundation to help other parents

In the midst of our grief, my husband and I decided that we wanted to spare other families from the pain and loss we experienced on that day and every day since.

Our promise led to the creation of The ZAC Foundation in 2008 with a vision for generational change in how water safety is viewed by parents and their children. The ZAC Foundation believes addressing the nation’s drowning crisis requires a whole community approach informed by, and reflective of, the realities specific to individual communities, including the makeup of the local population and cultural attitudes toward water safety. The Foundation has provided water safety programming through its award-winning ZAC Camps to more than 20,000 children ages 5 to 9 in at-risk communities nationwide.

The past 15 years have been an education in the pervasive nature of water threats. We are reminded daily that parents’ best intentions are no match for unmitigated danger and lack of preparedness. It is not just a summertime issue; water safety is essential 365 days a year. According to the CDC, fatal drowning is so commonplace that it is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 and the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children 5 to 14.

Children are quick and curious, and most drownings occur when a parent is not present. This includes children accessing backyard pools that aren’t properly secured, unattended hot tubs, ponds, and even pet bowls of water. Babies can drown in as little as one inch of water, making it important to install barriers to bodies of water near the home, empty buckets of water when not in use, and lock the bathroom door to avoid access to the toilet and bathtub.

There is no ‘off’ season for water safety

As I write this in the midst of the perceived “offseason,” I urge readers to ensure homes are secured year-round, not just in the heat of summer. A checklist of water safety tips helps prevent tragedy.

First, pool drains should comply with drain safety laws, which we helped enact after Zachary’s death. An unsafe drain comes in many forms, including an extremely dangerous one that’s missing a cover or one with a non-compliant cover. A safe drain has a raised, often dome-shaped cover with small openings that make it hard for hair, jewelry, and other loose items to get caught. When installed properly, compliant drain covers are the most effective way to protect children from entrapment.

Second, barriers to the pool — including a four-sided fence with a locking gate — should effectively restrict children’s access. Alarms on gates and doors leading to the pool area give an extra layer of protection as they provide an audible alert in addition to visuals. Finally, a secured pool cover that can withstand the weight of a child is another safety option.

In addition to physical barriers around pools, it’s vital to equip families with the skills necessary for a lifetime of water safety. Enrolling children in swim lessons helps instill confidence and teaches lifesaving skills. Life jackets and personal flotation devices in water sports such as rafting, boating, and fishing are essential for everyone, even for sound swimmers, who can lose consciousness in an accident. And finally, CPR lessons for the entire family have a remarkable payoff.

If we can save even one family from heartbreak, we will have honored Zachary’s life and the window of joy he brought to our lives.

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