Tragic waters: Drownings this year have risen dramatically

On July 4, two 55-year-old men were walking along an old road bed in shallow water at Smithville Lake.

Suddenly the bottom dropped out and one slid into a deepwater hole.

His friend tried to save him.

Neither man resurfaced.

Drownings can happen that quickly. And they are happening far more frequently in Missouri and Kansas than last year.

Already in 2013 there have been 24 drownings across Missouri, four more than in all of 2012. Three of them occurred over the holiday weekend.

Officials monitoring Kansas waterways have dealt with 12 drownings so far this year, double the usual number for an entire year.

“Usually Kansas has about five or six drownings a year,” said Maj. Dan Hesket, boating law administrator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “The summer is only half over.”

Water patrol officials are busy warning people going to lakes that ignoring water safety rules –– wearing a life jacket, avoiding alcohol, knowing your swimming ability –– can be deadly.

Most of those drownings have occurred in lakes and man-made ponds, not pools.

Not only do lake swimmers often not wear life vests, but “a lot of people think they are better swimmers than they actually are,” said Cpl. David Campbell of the Missouri Highway Patrol. “And often there’s alcohol involved, clouding judgment.”

But why so many more drownings this year?

Officials in both states say weather may have something to do with it.

Unlike last year, when drought dried up swimming holes and extreme heat kept people indoors, this year “we have had a good deal of rain and the weather is mild,” said Cpl. Scott White of the Missouri Highway Patrol.

But he added that “I don’t think there is one single explanation” for the uptick.

The drownings this year have seemed to come in pairs, officials said.

In one weekend last month, the Missouri Highway Patrol handled two water deaths at Ozark lakes.

A 64-year-old man from Pontiac, Mo., drowned during an early evening swim on Bull Shoals Lake.

And a 48-year-old Mission man, who family members said was “a very strong swimmer,” was preparing to go out boating and fell off a dock at the Lake of the Ozarks.

His family thought that perhaps he had a heart attack, although that hasn’t been determined.

Family members found the body of Carl P. Migliazzo when they raised the boat lift and discovered he was caught on the end of it.

Teen drowns

Kalan Littlefield, 17, wasn’t a strong swimmer, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket the afternoon he fell while on a personal watercraft.

He was riding shotgun while his uncle drove, and witnesses said the watercraft wasn’t moving very fast.

But somehow Kalan — “6 feet 4 inches tall and strong as an ox,” his mother said — fell into the 60-acre pond on a family friend’s property in Kingsville, Mo.

His aunt dove in from the shoreline and down into the water trying to save him, “but the bottom was too muddy and she couldn’t find him,” said Kalan’s mom, E’Leka Littlefield.

Kalan’s surrogate grandfather had asked him several times that day — June 16 — to put on a life jacket.

“But you know how teenagers are,” Littlefield said.

The grandfather also warned the teen to stay clear of certain sections of the pond because “they didn’t know how deep it was there,” Littlefield said.

Kalan was to have been starting quarterback at Holden High School in the fall, his senior year.

“I told his friends at his vigil, water is nothing to play with,” Littlefield said. “I told them, you are not invincible. If someone tells you to put on a life jacket, put it on.”

It may seem surprising that someone as strong, young and fit as Kalan could have drowned in a pond.

But visibility in most lakes and ponds is only about six inches, water safety experts said.

And “most people who drown are usually within 10 feet of safety,” Hesket said.

People who are drowning “go into a kind of trance,” Hesket said. “They can’t see and they can’t hear.”

Under the water, “they won’t know up from down,” he said. “They get into the muddy silt on the bottom and they are confused.”

Kalan was the second teen his friends lost in a drowning accident this summer. A week earlier, Kalan’s former classmate Emmanuel Palmer-Hutton drowned while trying to swim across the cove at Lakewood Lake.

Sudden drop-off

Swimmers, waders and boaters often misjudge how unpredictable lakes and ponds are.

“Swimming in a lake is nothing like swimming in a controlled environment like a pool,” White said.

Gregory Weese of Plattsburg and John Butts of Smithville had been wading along a submerged road that existed before the man-made lake was formed. The pavement made it possible to wade well into the lake –– until it suddenly wasn’t there.

On a water patrol Thursday at Longview Lake in Jackson County, Campbell explained that the bottoms of natural waters “are not flat like a bathtub or pool. They slope. One minute it’s three feet, the next it’s 10 feet.”

He wasn’t at the scene of the Smithville Lake drownings but said it’s not uncommon for the bottom in shallow water to suddenly drop off into deep water.

“The drop can startle a swimmer or someone wading,” he said. “It happens fast. It takes only seconds for someone to panic, swallow a bit of water and they are in trouble.”

It’s also common that if one swimmer gets into trouble, another person will go into the water without having the proper lifesaving knowledge.

Jumping in to try to rescue a drowning person is a last resort unless that person has something other than you to grab onto, he said.

People who are drowning will grab onto the first thing that touches them, Hesket said.

In the water, they move their arms and legs in a way described as “climbing” because it resembles a person climbing a ladder.

If the first thing they touch is another person, “they are liable to push them under while trying to climb on them to get out of the water, and the rescuer will drown,” Hesket said. “We teach reach, throw, row and go in that order.”

In other words, first reach for the person with a branch or an oar.

If that’s not possible, throw something to them that floats, Hesket said.

“They will grab a hold and calm down,” he said. “Then maybe you can talk them close to the boat or shore.”

Go after them yourself in the water only if there are no other options.

Another big problem is that people don’t wear life vests in lakes, water patrol officers say.

There are no laws in either state requiring lake swimmers to wear a vest, “but even the best swimmers need to wear a vest on the lake,” White said. “If you become incapacitated in the water, it’s the vest that will keep you afloat, keep your head above the water.”

In Kansas, water patrols are giving away “Wear It Kansas” T-shirts in a campaign to encourage more people on the water to wear life vests.

(Aboard boats, Missouri law requires children 7 years old and younger to wear a life vest at all times. In Kansas, it’s required for children 12 and younger.)

“People don’t want to wear the vest –– they say it’s confining, it’s too hot or they just want to get a tan,” Campbell said.

But officials equate wearing a vest to wearing a seat belt.

That’s definitely true of the Kansas drownings, said Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“It may not have anything to do with what got them in the water in the first place, but a life jacket certainly would have saved these folks’ lives,” Kaufman said.