INVESTIGATORS: Drowning is silent

Drowning is one of the leading causes of children’s deaths. It happens so often because most people don’t know what an actual drowning looks or sounds like. It is not the loud, hands splashing event you see in the movies or television.

The story you are about to watch is a life-saving Fox 9 demonstration that is as stunning as it is unsettling. Trish Van Pilsum explains how children can drown in plain sight.  

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"It was the same thing that happened to me," Tyler Lazerte, who slipped under water at a friend's pool, told Fox 9 Investigator Trish Van Pilsum. "Under the water, no one heard nothing -- not even the guy in the pool with me."

The day a 4-year-old slid from the synthetic tropical island at the Shoreview Community Center and wandered into deep waters, he couldn't have known that he would become the fourth child in as many months who would show that most people have no idea what a drowning person looks or sounds like.

It is a fatal misunderstanding that even the media is perpetuates at times.

"There is not going to be that yelling and screaming," Jon Foss, of Foss Swim School, explained. "He is only perpetuating that myth."

At a local water park, the Fox 9 Investigators found parents' eyes were glued everywhere but the pool.

"I think they think they'll hear if their kids are in trouble," Foss said. "This is a big mistake."

If a deluge of drownings and near-drownings can't convince parents to be more watchful, perhaps this will:

"If you want zero drownings, it's going to have to have a massive change in the idea of how drownings happen," Foss said.

That's why to begin Fox 9's drowning demonstration, longtime swim coach and instructor Foss has to teach very experienced swimmers how to look like they are drowning.

"It happens very quickly, so are you willing to try?" Foss asked 9-year-old students Will and Ella.

The Fox 9 Investigators put three cameras on deck and two in the water. The divers carry cameras and heavy water safety credentials to make sure the children stay safe.

"You're going to start to drown," Foss said. "It doesn't take very long, does it?"

The point of the test is to see whether anybody in a busy pool would see them drown -- or, rather, pretend to drown. So, the children were put in the middle of a water polo game played by members of the Foss Fastjets Swim Team. The parents of all the children involved knew what was going on.

"I think this is great," Jennifer Duncan assured.

However, parents bringing in younger children for swimming lessons did not know -- and they were invited poolside.

"Right in front of you, a little boy just drowned," Van Pilsum said to a parent.

The Fox 9 Investigators explained it's just a test to the parent who had been looking above the water and not below and found that parents generally don't notice because they don't know what they're looking for. Most expect head bobbing, arms up in the air, a struggle and some splashing -- but that is not what drowning looks or sounds like. The reason is part biology and part physics.

"Our nose is a very special thing in that it allows us to swim," Foss said.

Since human nostrils point downward, the air stays inside as long as the head is upright underwater -- but a struggling swimmer's first instinct is to lean their head back.

"If he looks up, it would be like uncorking the bottle. Then, the air will come out," Foss explained. "If a child is swimming in a position like this, the hydrostatic pressure will force the air out very quickly."

Not only will a drowning victim have lost their buoyancy in the process along with all of their reserve of oxygen, but Foss points out that means a child would have no air in their lungs to yell. That makes drowning a mostly silent event.

"In a matter of a minute or two, it's over," he cautions.

Not a single parent -- despite being safety-minded, swimming-lesson buying caregivers -- spotted the children who pretended to drown.

"What it tells me is that almost 100 percent of the population believes that drowning is a loud, raucous thing," Foss said.

In fact, it took the other kids playing water polo 24 minutes to report to a coach that something was wrong.

"It's weird no one would notice," Ella reflected. "You would think someone would notice, even if you pretend drowning."

When Tyler Lazerte slid silently underwater in a friend's pool five years ago, his friend didn't spot him until he'd been under for about 2 minutes -- long enough to hurt his brain. He knows what he wants to say, but struggles to make the words come out right.

"This happens a lot and it sucks," he said.

When the Fox 9 Investigators asked Tyler Lazerte's father, Rick, whether he was surprised no parents saw the drowning demonstration, he admitted that he was.

"Hopefully, people take something away from that and realize it's important to keep your eye on your kid," he said.

In the end, somebody was keeping an eye on the little boy whose struggle in the Shoreview pool was real. A 10-year-old family friend spotted him at the bottom of the pool, lifted him up and carried him out. A nurse and rescue workers revived him and so far, he seems fine -- but not surprisingly, nobody heard a thing.

"I think a deaf lifeguard is probably the best lifeguard," Foss admitted.One who learns to rely on their eyes and not their ears."It is just a matter of seconds," Rick Lazerte said. "Someone could easily drown."

Water safety tips

1. Never swim alone: Even a teenager or adult should swim with a buddy.

2. Pick a look-out: Designate an adult to be close enough to reach out and touch a child under 4 years old whenever they are in the water.

3. Don't waste time: If your child is missing, look in the pool first.

4. Keep a cell phone nearby: Every second counts when you have to call 911, but keep it turned off or silenced while you watch swimmers in the pool.

5. Install alarms: Any door or window leading to a pool area can be outfitted to alert adults to unexpected access.

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