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Close call in pool serves as warning

As warm weather kicks in, parents need to know that drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for Florida kids ages 1 to 4.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

ST. PETE BEACH -- "Where is your sister?"

Moments after asking that question Feb. 25, Toni Spiegel's heart went cold. Madelyn Spiegel, 4, said she didn't know where her sister Marina, 2, had gone.

Then the mother turned around and saw her toddler floating face down in the swimming pool.

"I just flew," said Spiegel, 38.

She had to unlock a sliding glass door before she could reach her daughter, whom she described as "blue, limp, lifeless and not breathing." However, as she rushed the tot to a couch inside and her husband Richard dialed 911, Spiegel realized Marina still had a pulse.

While an ambulance raced to their 55th Avenue home, an emergency medical technician instructed the couple to turn the child on her side. Spiegel did so and instinctively hit her daughter two or three times between the shoulder blades with the heel of her hand. It was a technique she had learned about five years earlier in an infant CPR class.

Water spurted out of the child's mouth. After another 10 to 15 seconds, she awakened and began looking around the room, seeming dazed.

"Finally, she looked at me and started to cry," Spiegel said. "It was the best cry in the whole world."

Marina was released after several hours of observation at Bayfront Medical Center. But all too often, safety experts say, it's parents who end up shedding the tears. As warm-weather months approach, safety organizations want adults to remember some sobering statistics.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for Florida children ages 1 to 4. A new state law requires that swimming pools installed after Oct. 1, 2000, come equipped with at least a 4-foot barrier on all sides, self-locking gates, a pool cover, or alarms at pool entrances.

The law exempts above-ground pools and the estimated 1-million residential pools already existing in the state. And pools are not the only problem.

"Anywhere there is water, there is danger," said Janet McGuire, a public affairs director for the American Red Cross. Children have drowned in toilets. One child drowned last year in a bucket. Marina Spiegel's accident was the third near-drowning this year for Pinellas children under 11.

"If we keep this up, we're going to break the record," said Lennard Ciecieznski, a county public information specialist. Accurate statistics can be hard to come by, he said. The medical director's office counts as drowning deaths only those that occur within 24 hours after an underwater submersion.

So, of the 16 child submersions in 2000, only one officially resulted in a drowning -- but three other children died of complications days later, Ciecieznski said.

According to safety instructor Chris Bengivengo of the St. Petersburg Fire Department, the biggest obstacle for adults is naivete.

"Everybody says, "I was standing right there, I just turned away for a minute,' " Bengivengo said. "It happens so quickly that they don't think they could have done anything differently."

Organizations in the West Central Florida Drowning Prevention Coalition are trying to counter those attitudes. The coalition plans to make visors stamped with the words "POOL WATCHER." Designated pool watchers would spend half-hour shifts looking only at the water.

The Spiegels had retired from their swim and gone inside to the den. Three other sliding-glass doors leading to the pool were locked. The den's sliding-glass doors were not locked. Richard Spiegel, who owns an auto sales business, was doing paperwork at the kitchen counter. The children were coloring or playing quietly.

Toni Spiegel went through a door across the room to the garage to retrieve a cardboard box for her older daughter's artwork.

She was gone less than one minute. When she returned, both of her daughters were gone.

"I heard my older one singing, and I asked Richard, "Where's Marina?' " she said.

Her husband said he thought both girls had gone into the living room. Toni Spiegel saw nothing in the section of pool visible from the den's doors. She found Madelyn playing in the entrance hall, who didn't know where her sister was.

Moments later, everyone knew.

Friday, Marina was still wearing a pair of electrode patches left over from the hospital, just for fun. In the ambulance, she had told her mother that she had fallen into the pool while trying to pick up a broom that was lying poolside.

"I don't think people consider water an enemy," said Art Brown, a public education director for Clearwater's Fire and Rescue Department and past president of the drowning prevention coalition. "Most of the houses in Pinellas have patios and sliding-glass doors that open right onto pool decks. They are not designed for young children.

"People think, "Oh, we've got a lovely pool! Look out the door at the lovely pool there!' They don't think of the tragedy that could unfold there."

Pool and water safety programs

The American Red Cross

818 Fourth St. N

Next class on infant CPR: March 19, 6-10 p.m.

Cost is $32. Certificate awarded after passing skill and written tests.


All Children's Hospital

801 Sixth St. S

Next class on infant CPR: March 19, 6-10 p.m.

Cost is $20.


West Central Florida Drowning Prevention Coalition

Provides speakers and free public education.

Information hotline: 582-2074

Clearwater Fire & Rescue

562-4327, ext. 3173

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