By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- A school swim party at a public pool almost ended in tragedy a few days ago when the limp body of Dustin Shields, 7, was pulled from Fossil Park pool. Eyewitnesses said he had no pulse, was not breathing and had turned blue.
The boy was revived by a parent and lifeguard, and he is fine now, said his mother, Beth Shaw. But he will not soon forget.
His mother said Dustin "doesn't want to sleep alone and told a friend, 'I was dead.' I hope I can get him back in the water to get him swim lessons."
The incident serves as a reminder that accidents can happen even with abundant oversight and that the best precaution is teaching children to swim.
Thursday began with excitement and anticipation. St. Petersburg Christian School officials rented the pool for their 54 first-graders for an end-of-the-school-year pool party. The children, their three teachers and 21 parents gathered at Fossil Park, 6739 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, about noon.
Three lifeguards were on duty. They administered swim tests to the children, and those who did not pass were given life jackets. Dustin, who, according to his mother, does not swim, was among that group.
"Everything was going real good," said Frank Hoebbel, a parent who was there. "Lots of splashing and playing."
Another father, Mark Peacock, said, "I had about six kids hanging off me. We were in the shallow end, about 4 feet of water. I see Dustin underwater about 15 feet away and get to him. I nudge him with my foot and bubbles come up. At that point, I'm holding all these kids so, with my foot, I lift him up, then grab his waist. I got him out of the water. He was blue. I looked at the lifeguard. I take him over to the ledge. "He's not breathing,' I say. I said it again: "The kid's not breathing.' "
The sequence of events varies after that among those present who were interviewed.
Ken Allen, pool supervisor and a certified lifeguard, said one of the lifeguards was at the pool's edge and saw Dustin, who was wearing a swim mask, at the bottom of the pool. He was about to investigate whether or not the boy needed help when Peacock got to him first, Allen said.
Suzanne Charneski, a mother who was in the pool with her daughter, said, "The lifeguards seemed to be in shock. I swam over to the edge of the pool. I pushed a lifeguard out of the way. I put my head down and there was no heartbeat or pulse. I started doing chest compressions. I started screaming to clear the pool."
She said the lifeguards did not blow a three-whistle blast that signals an emergency.
Peacock, the father who pulled Dustin from the water, recalls hearing it.
Allen, the pool supervisor, said the blast brought him running from his office.
"A lifeguard was on his knees doing the first three steps of CPR, look, listen and feel," he said. "The child's eyes were dilated and he was blue. At that point, I asked the lifeguard to move away and I moved in. I started doing breathing. A mom was doing chest compressions."
Allen said that after about two minutes of CPR, Dustin "looked like he was coming back. He had a pulse. I asked the parent to stop doing chest compressions and I started rescue breathing" because, he said, "the child was not breathing on his own."
The other children had been shepherded by parents and teachers to the bleachers, where they sang hymns and prayed together.
"Dustin coughed, sat up and started crying," Allen said.
Hoebbel, a respiratory therapist, had checked his pupils.
"I knew he was okay," said Hoebbel, who estimated that Dustin had been underwater two minutes.
A parent had called 911. Another parent called Dustin's mother, who was at work. Emergency rescue workers from St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue arrived at 1:08, according to their records, six minutes after getting the call. Dustin was taken to All Children's Hospital, where he spent the night. He was discharged the next day, his mother said.
After the incident, several parents raised questions.
"I don't give a d-- what anyone says," Charneski said. "The lifeguards need to be retrained. Their job is to take control of a situation like that and they did not."
"All of our lifeguards are American Red Cross certified," said Gretchen Tenbrock, recreation manager for the city of St. Petersburg. "They all have 100 hours of training. They just finished a four-hour in-service training and they have on-site weekly staff training. I feel the lifeguards moved into action and did what they were trained to do."
Allen, 28, has worked at city pools for nine years. Before Thursday, he had never performed CPR on a person. He said, "From what I saw, there was no hesitation at all. I worked with Suzanne (Charneski) and she did an excellent job.
"A lot of times, people overreact. You're nervous and scared. The truth is, she didn't follow correct procedures. Before you do compressions, you have to do the breathing. She just started in with the compressions and locked my lifeguard out. The emergency plan worked as it should have, and I wouldn't change a thing."
All the lifeguards, including Allen, completed written statements after the incident, but the city's risk management office declined to release them to the Neighborhood Times.
Another parent, Wanda Petkiewicz, said, "It seemed like forever for the paramedics to get there," especially, she said, since a fire station is next door to the pool.
Six minutes is longer than the average response time, four minutes, said Assistant Fire Chief Bill Jolley. Jolley's station, No. 9 on the west side of the city near St. Petersburg Junior College, normally would not have been called to Fossil Park. But paramedics at Station 7, adjacent to the park, were out on other calls, and a rescue team from No. 9 was nearby.
How Dustin, who was supposed to be wearing a life jacket, wound up on the bottom of the pool without one also raised conjecture.
"I think he took it off several times," said Hoebbel. "A teacher would tell him to put it back on."
"Once he took it off, the lifeguards would have no way of knowing who should be wearing one," said the school's principal, Ruth Ann Palmer. "We're looking into those colored wrist bands."
She added: "You can do everything right and something can still go wrong. We are so thankful this child's okay and was spared any terrible outcome."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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SWIM LESSON SIGN-UP IS SATURDAY: The city of St. Petersburg offers swimming lessons throughout the summer for children and adults at its eight pools. Sign-up begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Each session consists of a 40-minute class, Monday through Thursday, for three weeks. Three sessions are offered. The fee is $25. For general information, call 893-7732 or the individual pool listed in the city government section in the phone book.
CPR CLASSES OFFERED: Instruction in CPR is offered by the American Red Cross, Tampa Bay Chapter, in June and early July. Classes provide certification in either adult or infant and child CPR. The cost ranges from $31 to $41 for a one-day session. Yearly renewal of certification is recommended. Call 1-877-741-1444, ext. 850, for information.
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