River Smith’s family had just finished dinner in June 2019.
The 3-year-old was in his pajamas having a water gun fight with his brother when River’s father turned his back for a few minutes. That’s when River managed to bypass the family’s pool gate and get into the water.
“I just heard my daughter scream, so I came running out,” said his mother, Amber Smith.
The boy’s father, country singer Granger Smith, was already performing CPR on him but eventually the boy passed away.
Back then, his mother thought that swimmers in trouble were typically splashing and yelling for help. This isn’t always the case though, she said. Sometimes drowning is “quick and silent.”
“It happens mostly during non-swim times,” Smith told USA TODAY. “Over 65% of children drown when they’re not supposed to be near the water at all. It’s in those few seconds that they slip away.”
Statistically, drowning is the single leading cause of deaths for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, said Adam Katchmarchis, an assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
“The reason why we say there’s no one single means of preventing drowning entirely is because all of these layers can break down and the supervision layer can break down quite easily,” he told USA TODAY. “With just a 20 to 30 second lapse in supervision, a drowning can take place.”
Read more water safety statistics and tips below.
What parents need to know Granger Smith, Bode Miller drowning tragedies can happen to anyone.
How a drowning tragedy changed this mother’s perspective on water safety
At the time of River’s passing, the Smith family had three children: River, Lincoln and London. The Smiths put their kids in swimming lessons at 3 years old. River was scheduled to start his swimming lessons the week after he drowned.
“I always wonder ‘If he would have gotten that lesson, could he have possibly made a sound or could he have possibly gotten to the side or something?’” his mother said.
But losing River really opened Smith’s eyes and showed her that she had a lot to learn.
“I had the number one killer in my backyard,” said Smith.
She is working with the National Drowning Prevention Alliance to make sure people have tools to protect themselves and their little ones in the water.
“We moved into that house and there wasn’t a pool gate,” she told USA TODAY. “We immediately put up a pool gate … We didn’t realize what we needed most of all was for them to be able to self-rescue.”
She was worried her two surviving children would be too traumatized to get back into the pool but the week after losing their brother, they were back in the water.
They’re not afraid of the water and they can both swim, she said. They even cheer on their younger brother, Maverick, who was born a few years after River passed away.
She made sure she enrolled Maverick in swimming lessons early – at just 8 months old.
“He was able to roll over and find the air,” she said. “It was incredible to witness and incredible to watch. He did it in his swim clothes. He did it in his regular clothes with a diaper and shoes. And then we just did his refresher lessons at 20 months old.”
When her kids are in the water, she makes sure there’s a guardian there to keep eyes on them. They also don’t use floaties because they don’t want to give their kids a false sense of security, Smith said.
“They think they can just walk into the water and then they’re going to float, so they don’t have the skills and they go straight to the bottom,” she said.
Know the five layers of protection, experts say
Water safety experts say there are other ways to prevent drownings, but it’s all part of a system. There’s not just one solution to being safe in the water, they say.
Many experts use what’s called the five layers of protection:
- Barriers and alarms (fencing, gates, pool safety covers)
- Supervision (Always have adult supervision or lifeguards present)
- Water competency (Brush-up on basic water safety skills to reduce the risk of drowning and injuries)
- Life jackets (Wear life jackets and make sure they are tested and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard)
- Emergency preparation (Complete training for CPR/water rescue skills and have a phone nearby to call 911)
What does a swimsuit color have to do with my child’s safety?
One social media post from swim instructor and mom Nikki Scarnati urged parents to avoid buying blue swimsuits because they make it more difficult to see children in the water.
In her TikTok video, Scarnati filmed her daughter as she swam in a blue bathing suit with pink trimming.
“Look how difficult it is to see her under the water, and this is in calm water. This is not with a whole bunch of other kids playing and splashing around and having a good time,” Scarnati said as her daughter disappeared below the surface. “(The bathing suit is) the same color as our environment.”
Katchmarchis, from the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, said this swimsuit warning falls under the five layers of protection, under the ‘supervision’ heading.
Darker and muted colors on swimsuits can blend in once the child submerges into water, especially if the sun is beaming down on the water.
It can happen even if the child is just a foot under the water, he said.
Lisa Zarda is executive director of the United States Swim School Association and said bright or neon colors are good options for swimsuits.
“Testing shows that they are a bit easier to see under the water,” she said.
But bright swimsuit colors don’t replace close supervision, she said. Just because there’s a lifeguard or your child has on a neon-colored bathing suit, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch them or that you should let your guard down.
What does drowning look like?
Katchmarchis said it’s also important to know that drowning isn’t always easy to spot. It’s not always the “loud and pronounced event” people expect.
“We’re used to seeing what we saw on ‘Baywatch’ or other shows that have beach lifeguards where the victim is calling out for help,” he said. “They’re waving their arms saying ‘Help me! Help me! I need help!’”
Some swimmers do look like this – waving their arms and yelling for help – and water safety experts call them distressed swimmers. These swimmers can usually maintain their position and support themselves but can’t make forward progress, he said.
But other swimmers may be categorized as active drowning victims, he said.
“That’s a 20 to 60-second life and death fight for survival,” he said. “It is silent with children because once they slip under the water, they may only be able to get their head above water to get a quick breath before they submerge.”
About the Author
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's Universal NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia and went to Virginia Wesleyan University, where she earned her bachelor's in English and education. She also has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. She started her journalism career as a breaking news intern in May 2018 at her hometown newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. A few months later, she was hired as a full-time staff writer. In June 2021, she joined the features team as an entertainment writer, where she wrote about all things art, reality TV and other fun topics. She loves horror movies, witchy Netflix shows, 90s R&B, country music, Christmas movies and of course, sushi.