Albany Times Union (Sunday)

Water deaths a tragic trend

Number of drownings has reached levels not seen in decades in N.Y.

- By Pete DeMola

STILLWATER — A helicopter hung low over Saratoga Lake on Sept. 1 as onlookers strained their eyes toward dark, choppy water.

Yet the hope at Brown’s Beach dissolved into despair after the aircraft lifted up, twirled around and landed as rescue boats appeared to locate their target.

The grief rippled through the group.

It’s a scene that has repeated itself across New York during an unseasonab­ly hot and dry summer that has seen people flock to rivers, lakes and pools to seek relief from record temperatur­es.

The number of drownings in the state is at the highest level in decades.

State Police have investigat­ed 25 fatal drownings statewide this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a 67 percent increase over the same time period last year when 15 people

drowned (the tally, which was provided to the Times Union, does not include the investigat­ions in which county sheriff ’s offices have taken the lead, which drives fatalities even higher).

Troopers handled 16 investigat­ions in 2020 and nine the previous year.

Zooming out, there is a degree of clarity when examining federal statistics.

Drownings statewide in 2020 — the most recent year for which federal data is available — increased 32 percent over 2019, jumping to 242 from 184, which is the median average dating back over two decades. The fatalities, which include all water deaths, are the highest since at least 1999 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database began.

“This is really a (nationwide) trend that has turned around the continued slow decrease of fatal drownings in this country since 2019,” said Dr. Linda Quan, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Drownings nationwide had dipped 32 percent over the past decade. Quan attributed the surge to people seeking to beat back pandemic boredom, rising temperatur­es, increasing­ly affordable amateur watercraft and a lack of universal water safety programs.

“Between the weather, our social unwillingn­ess to address drownings — and drowning prevention — we’ve allowed this to happen,” Quan said. “And it’s really just happened in the past three years.”

This year’s deaths across eastern New York and the Hudson Valley have ranged from overturned kayaks and canoes to terrifying sequences involving extended families, including two men who drowned in White Lake in Bethel last month, and another family member critically injured while trying to save a loved one in distress.

None knew how to swim, said Faruque Amin, who described watching his brother-in-law and brother succumb to the waters despite his attempted paddleboat rescue. His sister was placed on life support.

The area of the lake where the Long Island family was recreating is mostly shallow water, but Amin described an unpredicta­ble dip in the terrain, a steep but narrow ditch where the water depth plunges to about 20 feet.

“The next thing, I know I’m being pulled down,” Amin said in a YouTube video posted hours after the Aug. 28 incident. “All I remember at that time is I’m almost out of breath. And then somehow, I’m trying to push them up.”

Some upstate counties incurred a steeper number of drownings this summer.

The Warren County Sheriff ’s Office, for instance, was the lead agency for four drownings compared to none the year before, according to statistics provided by the count.

Two boaters died in separate incidents in Clinton County, marking the first drownings in the state’s northernmo­st county since 2018, both of whom died after their kayaks overturned.

Washington County, too, was stricken with fatalities this summer after several years of no deaths, including Onnex Thompson-Hall, a 6-yearold with autism who went missing and was found in a pond near his home, and Brett Hilliker, 24, of Granville whose body was discovered after he also reportedly went missing.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 3,960 fatal drownings annually, according to the (CDC), or 11 per day. The number of near-drownings is roughly twice as high.

Yet the true number of fatalities is likely higher because some deaths in the water — including those caused by strokes or cardiac events, or others that list another underlying cause as contributi­ng factors — aren’t always counted in drowning statistics, experts said.

“That’s startling and scary, but not even close to the full picture of what’s happening,” said Megan Ferraro, executive director of the ZAC Foundation, a water safety advocacy group.

The spike in drownings this summer in New York mirrors broader trends that have surfaced amid the onset of the pandemic nearly three years ago.

Ferraro said another key reason for the surge is a pandemic-rattled public letting their guard down when it comes to water safety. Additional­ly, a chronic lifeguard crunch has led to the closure of public pools, resulting in people seeking out other riskier settings, including natural bodies of water that are increasing­ly volatile due to climate change, including choppier oceans, lakes and rivers.

“So what you once saw as a safe place to swim is actually rougher and less safe,” Ferraro said.

The ZAC Foundation is among a coalition of groups working on a proposal for a national water safety action plan, which they hope to release next spring.

Better data collection will be one component, Ferraro said, among other suggested public guidelines and recommenda­tions to help reduce the risk of drowning, including the use of life jackets for everyone headed out onto the water — no exceptions.

“It will call for a much more detailed and realtime collection of data so we can warn population­s in real-time of the risks,” Ferraro said.

Children are particular­ly at-risk, with child drownings continuing to be the leading cause of unintentio­nal death among children ages 1 to 4 years old aside from birth defects.

Near-drownings, too, are on the upswing, with injuries involving children younger than 15 increasing 17 percent in 2021 with 6,800 injuries reported, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is urging parents to promote water safety vigilance.

Drowning in the U.S. also disproport­ionately impacts people of color.

Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than their white counterpar­ts, according to a 2021 CDC report that determined long-standing racial disparitie­s have only widened over the past two decades.

Compared with nonLatino white people, the rate was two times higher among Indigenous or Alaska Native persons, according to the report.

The numbers are similarly disproport­ionate in New York, where white people drowned at a rate of 9.35 per 1 million peo

ple, a number that shot up to 22 per 1 million for Black people, according to a 2020 report by the state Department of Health. The rate for Latinos was 12.2.

The inequity stems from years of disinvestm­ent in water safety programmin­g and municipal pools in urban communitie­s, said Kendra DeLoach McCutcheon, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport & Human Dynamics, as well as a legacy of segregatio­n that kept Black people from using the facilities.

Seventy percent of Black children and 60 percent of Hispanic youngsters don’t know how to swim, McCutcheon said.

The fear of water is compounded when friends and neighbors drown, creating a generation­al cycle.

“When we hear these statistics, there’s a community connection,” McCutcheon said. “They’re family members and community members who have died and that reinforces the fear.”

McCutcheon is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, Inc., a historical­ly Black sorority nonprofit community service organizati­on that has partnered with USA Swimming to bolster water safety programmin­g for people of color, including young Black girls.

Ideally, participan­ts will graduate from attending “dry” educationa­l clinics to “wet” clinics that will teach them how to swim.

Part of the programmin­g is specifical­ly designed for young Black girls to properly care for their hair in the water.

“That becomes a big deal because of the love, intensity and time it takes to create these styles,” McCutcheon said. “So how do you overcome that?”

Quan, the pediatrici­an, said New York is among the states with a high number of state-regulated swimming sites, as well as one that has designated staff for water facilities at state parks; for example, the state of Washington stripped that away years ago, she said.

Yet drownings will only likely continue to escalate absent a broader educationa­l shift, Quan said, among everyone, from teenagers to senior citizens who are increasing­ly physically active into their 70s and 80s.

“The public needs to get smarter about the water,” Quan said, “and this is the wake-up call.”

At Brown’s Beach in Stillwater, authoritie­s identified the man who died Sept. 1 as 44-year-old Christophe­r Lavigne of Mechanicvi­lle.

Lavigne’s canoe capsized due to windy conditions, authoritie­s said.

He spent his final day fishing.

“A hard and conscienti­ous worker,” read his obituary,” Chris loved the solitude and challenge of fishing anywhere there was a body of water.”

 ?? Will Waldron / Times Union ?? A drowning victim from a canoe accident was recovered Sept. 1 near Brown’s Beach at Saratoga Lake.
Will Waldron / Times Union A drowning victim from a canoe accident was recovered Sept. 1 near Brown’s Beach at Saratoga Lake.

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