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Tragedy reached out for girl, but lifeguard turned it back

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


The happy ending might happen two, three or four times each summer at Fort De Soto Park alone. Often, no one besides that day's beachgoers ever hear the tale.

On Sunday, the chief lifeguard at Fort De Soto plucked an unconscious 5-year-old from the water, draped her across her chest and carried the lifeless-looking child to shore. The lifeguard, Kathy Cleary, began resuscitating her, and soon the girl's eyes fluttered open.

[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
"You can take all the precautions in the world, but it only takes a second," said Fort De Soto lifeguard Kathy Cleary.
A beach visitor with a camera captured the episode on film: Cleary striding purposefully through the surf to the shore. Cleary hovered over Jasmine Holmes, her horrified family looking on helplessly.

"Any time you're dealing with little ones, any time you're dealing with life-and-death situations, there's going to be a connection with them," Cleary said of the feelings she has for the near-drownings she has saved over the years. "You want those people to live."

The image of Cleary emerging from the swim area she patrols daily, cradling a child on the verge of life, was reminiscent of another photo burned into the American psyche: the photograph of a firefighter cradling 1-year-old Baylee Almon as he emerged from the Oklahoma City bombing wreckage on April 19, 1995.

The snapshot of Cleary is purely Florida's, as Cleary rescued the St. Petersburg girl from a fate that killed 107 children under the age of 14 in 1997, the last year for which numbers were available from the Centers for Disease Control. Drowning is the leading cause of death in Florida for children under the age of 4.

Beach lifeguards -- from teenagers looking for a summer job in the sun to men and women like Cleary, who make lifeguarding a passion and profession -- are the last line of defense between a fun day and tragedy.

Jasmine was taken by medical helicopter from the North Beach swim area Sunday afternoon, then released from the hospital Monday. Through an All Children's Hospital spokeswoman, her family declined to be interviewed.

Such happy endings don't happen often enough. Last year in Pinellas and Pasco counties, the medical examiner's office said 47 people drowned. Ten of them were under the age of 14.

Cleary declined to talk this week about Jasmine's near drowning, saying any official word on the incident must come from county officials. But she would talk about lifeguarding, the job she became certified for at age 18 and hasn't been able to pull herself away from ever since.

Ask Cleary, and she'll tell you she didn't save Jasmine's life on her own last weekend. Cleary was patrolling the swim area on kayak that day, maneuvering around the beachgoers to check out the busiest areas on the busiest beach weekend of the year.

Other lifeguards on duty that day -- there were 10 altogether -- were at different positions, allowing her "to be at the right place at the right time," she said.

When Cleary is on kayak duty, she paddles the perimeter of the swimming area, looking for signs of trouble that could be missed from the shore. Often, she said, children in danger are not the ones playing alone on the outskirts of the swimming area, but those in congested spots in the water.

That's where Jasmine was. On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, it would have been difficult to find any private spot to play in the surf, but when Cleary saw Jasmine, she was floating face down less than 10 feet away from a group of people.

"We try to go where the areas are a bit busier," Cleary said. "When you have a lot of people that are in certain areas, sometimes from a different vantage point, from being up above them, you can see something they don't."

From her spot perched above the water's surface in a kayak, Cleary saw the girl, motionless in a fluorescent pink swimsuit.

Cleary, 34, a champion swimmer since her days at Largo High School, scooped up the girl and ran to shore.

Paramedics were called. The Bayflite helicopter arrived to take Jasmine to the hospital. The story was a happy one before Jasmine even left the beach, as she opened her eyes for Cleary soon after resuscitation began.

Cleary said she is unsure how long Jasmine was in the water.

"Parents, really, please watch your children," said Cleary, a mother of three boys. "They are so precious, and it only takes a couple seconds."

Sunday was the performance of a play that has been dress-rehearsed again and again. A life-saving doesn't come off without hours of training and drills.

The lifeguards' training is as serious as their purpose is sober. And when things pull together as they did Sunday and a little girl goes home healthy after one night in the hospital, Cleary is satisfied.

"There's a lot of things that have to happen that nobody sees," she said. "It's things that you've worked for and prepared for. The trucks don't just arrive, and the emergency personnel don't just happen to get there."

Cleary learned in the Times Tuesday morning that Jasmine had been released from the hospital. "We all rushed to the paper" looking for information on Jasmine, Cleary said. "Everybody did. We do take this job home with us."

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