Parents' worst nightmare: Two families nearly lose children to drowning; offer warnings

It's not like in the movies. In fact, for parents, it is much scarier.

With summer underway, two Clinton families are reminding parents to take care when they bring their children swimming.

The Frick family four years after the near-fatal drowning: Father Mike, mother Shannon, and brothers Owen and Liam.

The Fricks' story

July 1, 2017, is a day that Shannon Frick will never forget. She and her husband, Mike, brought their sons, Liam, 3½, and Owen 7, to a pool.

Liam had attended swimming lessons for multiple sessions over the winter after he turned 2, as well as the following winter.

"Mike and I arrived to a cookout ready to relax and enjoy good food and great company. We set our beach chairs up at the deep end of the pool," she said. "We could see the entire pool from our seats and both boys loved jumping in so it was the perfect spot. When one of us got up, we made sure the other knew to keep their eyes on the pool."

Both boys had floaties on while in the pool. But it was time to eat and the Fricks dragged the boys out of the pool to eat, promising they could swim and play more after. The parents took the boys' floaties off.

"We sat at a table near our chairs and got through lunch," Shannon said. "Owen wanted to go check out the chicken coop, Liam wanted to go play in the playhouse on the other end of the pool outside of the fenced in pool area. I told Liam he needed to finish his lunch before we would head over and play."

She gave Liam a piece of his cheeseburger and said “last bite.” then she and her husband began talking to Owen about the chicken coop, "all the rules, don’t touch, don’t go in it, don’t scare the chickens.

"It took us maybe 30 seconds to explain all that to Owen," Shannon added. "Thirty seconds for Liam to think, 'hey mom said after I’m done eating and she just gave me my last bite I’m heading to the play house."

Thirty seconds for him to fall into a pool.

Thirty seconds until a man at the cookout started yelling because he saw Liam floating face down.

"I’m telling you, there is nothing like seeing someone holding your child, lifeless and blue," she added. "Seeing him like that still haunts me more than anything."

It was after Mike did chest compression 28 that Liam started coughing and spitting up water.

"It’s when he took a breath and I swear it’s when Mike and I started breathing again as well," Shannon said.

The Fricks "had been through the ringer" with Liam before.

"Liam is a former preemie, so his lungs had already had a bit of difficulty," Shannon said, adding that for the two winters following the drowning, "he had multiple hospital stays for chronic pneumonia due to the scar tissue on his lungs, whether that was solely from being a preemie or if his drowning played into it we couldn't really tell."

The near-drowning could have been worse.

"A couple days in the ICU on high flow to help his lungs recover and he was coming home with us," Shannon said. "I always think, five more seconds and our story could be totally different. If that gentleman in the pool didn’t notice him for another five seconds, we wouldn’t have him with us."

Today, Liam is 7½ and Owen 11.

Shannon said it took a couple of days for Liam to be able to tell his parents what happened.

"He was walking and bumped into a chair and fell into the pool. He would tell us, 'I fell in and I just couldn't get back up. I was stuck under the water.' He will still bring it up when we are around pools and talk about 'that time I got stuck under the water.'

"He was definitely turned off from the water immediately following the incident, but we encouraged him to get in the pool with us over those next few weeks," Shannon said.. "He is a complete fish now, but where most kids his age don't still wear a life jacket, he feels more comfortable with one on. "

Older brother Owen remembers every second.

"It has caused him to (be) very hyper vigilant when he is in any body of water with his brother, cousins and/or friends," Shannon said. "He gets really nervous about Liam being without a life jacket in the pool and we have to remind him that Liam needs to learn to be comfortable without one and that we are right here to help him if he starts to struggle."

The Fricks have a pool and are big on pool rules for children, such as not getting into the pool without an adult with them and not going into the pool area without an adult.

"Since Liam's incident, we have done more talking about when we are at someone else's pool or at cookouts," she said. "We talk about the rules on the way to cookouts and constantly remind the boys about paying attention to their surroundings. As Owen is getting older, we are trying to remind him to make sure that when you go into the water with friends, you always make sure you all come out."

And parents need to know it is not like in the movies:

"When you think of drowning, you think splashing, noise, maybe a yell for help. None of that happens," Shannon said. "It is silent. Not a single noise is made."

Molly McCaffrey enjoying the pool recently.

The McCaffreys' story

In 2013, the McCaffreys almost lost their daughter, Molly.

"She fell into a pool and, luckily, someone — not us — saw the splash and we were able to save her," Tim McCaffrey said. 

Molly was 1½. Both she and her brother, Campbell, then 3, wore floaties while they were in the pool, but they were not wearing them yet.

"We walked into the pool area and started unloading our stuff on a table. I had just put my phone down. There was a family at the table across the way and the teenage girl saw Molly step into the pool. We were focusing on putting our stuff down and did not see nor hear it," he said. "I think that was the most surprising; I would have expected to hear a splash, but I didn't hear anything.

"As soon as she went in, the teenager yelled, 'The Baby!' I turned and immediately jumped into the pool," he added. "I swam down and saw Molly sinking toward the bottom. She had a surprised look on her face. I grabbed her and swam for the surface where I handed her to Meg at the side of the pool."

Since that time, both children have had summing lessons — "from other people," Tim said, "because they refuse to listen to us," even though his wife, Maegan, used to be a lifeguard and taught swimming.

Tim said there were no short-term or long-term effects from the situation beyond a couple of coughs and some tears — "from her and from us. She was in the water probably less than a minute and we stayed at the pool that day and played with the kids in the water."

The Philip J. Weihn Memorial Pool, in Clinton.

Advice from parents of near-drowning children

"My message to other parents would be to be as alert as possible when around the pool," Tim said. "Things can change very quickly if you're distracted even for 30 seconds. I lost track of Molly for probably that amount of time and had no one seen her go in the water, it would have taken me more time to understand that she was missing because I wouldn't have expected her to be underwater."

Maegen McCaffrey said many people don’t realize they are are actually seeing someone struggling and potentially drowning.

"It’s not like what they show in movies or on TV," she said. "And Molly just literally stepped in the pool and sank like a stone. Not a peep or a splash. You have to always be aware."

She suggested parents of young children put any flotation devices on their children before entering the pool area, "especially if you are carrying bags, coolers, etc., and don't have the ability to hold their hands to prevent them from going near the pool.

"Molly has always been pretty fearless and, in hindsight, it doesn't surprise me that she headed right for the pool," Maegen said. "One of us should have been holding her until she had her float on. Luckily, after the event she was not afraid to go back in and neither of the kids remember the incident. "

There are too many drownings and near-drownings reported every year.

"I believe there is a false sense of security when kids are together that they will be OK because they are not swimming alone. Even strong adults can have a hard time rescuing a child who is struggling to swim, especially in a lake, pond or the ocean," Maegen said. "I learned as a lifeguard that some children don't fear the water and don't understand that they will go under if they jump in.

"After rescuing kids that struggled while swimming in the deep end of the pool, I've always asked them why they jumped in if they knew they couldn't swim," she added. "They would often respond that they didn't realize they would sink, or that they didn't know that it was deep water, or that they didn't think their head would go under the water. These would be the same kids that had just watched 10 other kids jump off a diving board right before them. So you can never assume that children understand what will happen to them if they jump into the water. They see other kids swim and it looks easy, so they might assume they can swim, too."

As a lifeguard, Maegen said she was most alert when watching the 2-foot kiddie pool, or the area near the stairs.

"Small children will often dunk their heads under, or worse trip or get knocked over, and then panic when they cannot lift their heads back up," she said. "They might have put their heads under several times before, but if they get tired or accidentally get a mouthful or noseful of water, they can get scared and start panicking or choking.

"Children swimming near stairs can accidentally float away from the stairs while playing, or get pushed and then panic when they put their feet down to touch bottom and realize they are over their heads, even if they are within reach of a ladder, railing or another person. You have to always keep your eyes on small children, even if they are in very shallow water," Maegan added.

Shannon said she believes being CPR certified is "huge.

"Mike and I are both required by our jobs to be CPR certified. We know what to do in that situation. We also were lucky enough to have multiple police and firefighters at the cookout that day, so if Mike hadn't jumped into action someone would have," Shannon added. "I truly think that Liam getting CPR immediately is part of the reason he survived. I think if you have kids or you own a pool you should be certified in CPR."

Shannon also recommended what she called the "adult handoff."

"I think when you know you need to step away or take your eyes off the pool, it is important to make sure you communicate with someone that they are now the eyes," Shannon said. "Often, I think parents think the other one is watching because they are standing there, but just because you are there physically does not mean you are focused on the pool mentally."

Shannon said she and Mike have not talked about the near-drowning with many people, but chose to speak out this summer because of the number of fatal drownings reported.

"It breaks my heart," Shannon said. "I realized it needed to be talked about to help others and make sure it doesn't happen again.

"Just because your child knows how to swim doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep your eyes on them. You do," Shannon said. "I am so thankful we can call Liam’s drowning a 'non-fatal drowning,' but it would be even better if we could say it never happened."