'You're an angel. Thank you.'
By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
She said it over and over, yet it didn't seem to be enough.
"You're an angel. Thank you. You're an angel. Thank you."
What do you say to someone who held your child's life in her hands and gave it back to you?
For the first time since that awful afternoon two years ago, Sherry Pierce had the chance to personally thank the lifeguard who scooped her daughter from the surf at Fort De Soto Park. The lifeguard, Katherine Cleary, revived the 5-year-old girl and watched her leave the park in a hospital helicopter.
On Sunday, lifeguard, mother and child stood on the same beach, hugging and talking. It was a reunion, a celebration, a chance to talk about what happened, and to wish it never happens to anyone else.
"My child did die that day," said Pierce, 34, an accountant from St. Petersburg. "She drowned. They brought her back. You don't know how many times I have thanked heaven that she (Cleary) was there."
As the weather warms up -- as it has in the past several weeks -- and children flock to pools and beaches, statistics show that the risk of drowning increases dramatically.
The family of Jasmine Holmes knows that all too well. Fortunately, she survived.
* * *
It was a warm Sunday in May 2000, and Sherry Pierce was meeting family members at the park. It would be a nice day for Sherry's two daughters to play with their cousins. They arrived about 1:30, the car loaded with typical beach gear. The kids were eager to get in the water, and Sherry made a decision she regrets to this day. She told 5-year-old Jasmine that she could wade in the water so long as her 13-year-old sister Ashley was there to watch her.
She told Ashley: Bring Jasmine back to me if you decide you want to do something else. Everything seemed fine. Ashley was a responsible girl, athletically talented and a helper at home. Sherry continued to unload the car and went to the restroom and concession stand.
Sherry in no way blames Ashley for what happened next. She blames herself. Ashley got distracted and went off with some kids her age. Ashley thought another cousin was going to watch Jasmine.
Jasmine's memories of the afternoon are blurred by time and her young age. She remembers playing in the water -- she calls it swimming though her mother said she didn't know how to swim.
"I was out there swimming on the beach," Jasmine said. "I thought my sister was out there."
Someone threw a ball. It floated into deep water. Jasmine went for it.
* * *
At that moment, Katherine Cleary -- professional lifeguard, mother of three and accomplished swimmer -- was paddling a kayak just offshore, patroling the busy beach.
She had been guarding since 1984, her college days. She didn't start out thinking she would make a career of it. Her life just seemed to fall that way.
That Memorial Day weekend was one of the busiest of the season. Park officials estimate there were 3,000 people on the beach on that afternoon alone. Cleary was scanning the water, looking for those most likely to need help: children swimming by themselves.
"Sometimes kids don't scream," said Cleary, now 36, of St. Petersburg. "They just start to suck in water and they go under."
Even if they can swim, Cleary said, sometimes they take in cold water and a gag reflex kicks in, shutting off their airway. And at a place like Fort De Soto there's the chance they'll step in a hole. Adults might only go up to their chests, but children might go in over their heads.
When Jasmine lunged for the ball, she didn't know that the beach bottom would drop off beneath her.
* * *
There was not a cry for help or even a splash.
What caught Cleary's eye was the small, helpless flutter of Jasmine's hands.
"She was going down," said Cleary, the park's head lifeguard.
Mike Heidemann walked onto the beach at that moment. The 53-year-old special events planner is an amateur photographer, and he had come to the beach looking for interesting shots.
He spotted Cleary, who had locked in on Jasmine. Heidemann said everyone else appeared oblivious. He trained his lens on the lifeguard.
Cleary furiously paddled toward Jasmine, rolled the kayak, and got out while it was underwater. She grabbed Jasmine and carried her 20 to 30 feet to the shore. The other lifeguards at the beach called emergency workers and assisted with CPR.
"They just kept working on the child and working on the child, and finally the child just basically threw up and she was coming around," Heidemann said.
Jasmine had been unconscious, and with that there is always the potential for brain damage. Bayflite, the trauma helicopter for Bayfront Medical Center, was summoned.
* * *
Sherry Pierce was at the concession stand when she noticed the ambulances. She wondered what was going on. Someone charged up with the news.
"When they told me it was my baby," she paused, unable to finish the sentence, and put her hand to her chest.
When she saw Jasmine prone on the beach, Sherry became hysterical.
"I was expecting the worst at that time," she said.
Cleary, who calls herself a spiritual person, said a prayer for Jasmine as Bayflite took her to the hospital. She and the other lifeguards at Fort DeSoto scanned news reports for word on Jasmine's condition.
When they read that she had been released the next day, they were relieved.
"Going from Bayflite to being released," said Cleary. "We cheered. Those prayers were definitely answered."
Jasmine suffered no brain damage or other ill effects from her close call.
"Oh, it was a blessing," said her mother. "It's hard to describe the relief."
* * *
On Sunday, mother and lifeguard hugged on the beach.
"You're an angel," Sherry said. "Thank you."
Jasmine, finger in her mouth, shyly took a junior lifeguard T-shirt from her rescuer. She was hesitant but eventually accepted the lifeguard's invitation to go for a ride in one of the beach patrol kayaks.
It was the first time the family had been back to North Beach, and the memories were powerful.
"It took me awhile to be able to come back out here," Sherry said.
This Saturday, Jasmine turns 7. She is a first-grader at Tyrone Elementary. She recently lost one of her top front teeth and likes to make animals out of clay. She's learning how to read and to write in cursive.
And she's taking swim lessons at the local YMCA.
Florida, with its beach and swimming pool culture, perennially has among the highest drowning rates in the nation. In 2000, the lastest year for which statistics are available, 353 people drowned in Florida, 58 of them in the five-county Tampa Bay area, according to Florida Department of Health statistics.
How can people guard against drowning?
Whenever children are swimming, playing, or bathing in water, make sure an adult is constantly watching them.
Never swim alone or in unsupervised places. Teach children to always swim with a buddy.
Never drink alcohol while supervising children. To prevent choking, never chew gum or eat while swimming, diving, or playing in water.
Learn to swim. Enroll yourself and/or your children aged 4 and older in swimming classes. Swimming classes are not recommended for children younger than 4.
Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation. This is particularly important for pool owners and people who are around the water a lot.
Do NOT use air-filled swimming aids, such as "water wings" in place of life jackets or life preservers with children. These can give parents and children a false sense of security.
Check the water depth before entering. The American Red Cross recommends 9 feet as a minimum depth for diving or jumping.
If you have a swimming pool at your home:
Install a four-sided, isolation pool fence with self-closing and self-latching gates around the pool. The fence should be at least 4 feet tall and completely separate the pool from the house and play area of the yard.
Install a telephone near the pool. Know how to contact local emergency medical services. Post the emergency number, 911, in a highly visible place.
-- From the Centers for Disease Control drowning prevention Web page
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