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NWA editorial: Natural State dangers

State’s waterways offer great experiences, risks

Spring and summer in Northwest Arkansas draw people out of their homes like fireflies into the warm evenings to take full advantage of living in our beloved Natural State.

For thousands every weekend, and smaller crowds during the work week, warm temperatures mean it's time to take a refreshing dip at Beaver Lake, or the Buffalo, Mulberry, Kings, White or other rivers.

What’s the point?

The joys that can be found in Northest Arkansas’ lakes, creeks and rivers are worth experiencing, but the dangers of water demand preparedness and respect.

It's also a season of sadness, because without fail, every spring and summer ushers in a new collection of frantic calls for help, reports of swimmers who seemed fine only moments before but who can't be found. Or of the teen who didn't resurface after jumping from a bluff. Or the adult who set out swimming for a distant boat, only to struggle halfway there before disappearing.

The waters that offer a wide array of recreational opportunities also carry a constant threat that should never be underestimated. Indeed, the high potential for fun on the areas lakes, rivers and stream is a deceptive veil that hides lingering dangers.

On Sunday, a 10-year-old girl drowned while swimming in Johnson County as her family enjoyed a weekend outing at the Mulberry River, according to the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.

Separately, Kristi Marie Wylie, 31, of Rogers died Sunday, two days after she jumped into War Eagle Creek in an unsuccessful attempt to save her 13-year-old daughter, Maya Marie Martinez. The girl was swimming with another teen when she went under. Her mom and a family friend went into the water to attempt a rescue of the girl, who did not swim well, according to a Benton County Sheriff's Office spokesman. Wylie was pulled from the creek but later died at an area hospital.

Last month, 18-year-old Erik Santiago-Antanio of Fort Smith drowned in the Arkansas River as he attempted to rescue three children who began struggling in the river's current. He saved two of them. The third was rescued by a fisherman, but Santiago-Anatanio disappeared under the water's surface and didn't come up again.

Also in June, 22-year-old Anthony Scarpati of Centerton swam out to a buoy at Twin Points Swimming Beach at Skiatook Lake in Oklahoma. As he swam back, he went under the surface. His body was found about an hour later 20 yards from shore.

Such horrible losses, seeming even more tragic because they happened in the midst of carefree activities, the goal being only a good time with family and friends.

There's a risk involved in using recent tragedies as a launch pad for discussing the dangers of swimming, as American an activity as Independence Day. Some may misconstrue any comments as critical of either those who died or those who witnessed the drownings. Nothing could be further from our minds. These are accidents. They happened to people who set out for a fun time at the lake, or at the river. Nobody ever goes to a favorite swimming hole believing such a horrible event is likely. Indeed, who would go if they did?

But with such tragedies fresh in the minds of the living, let us not also miss the opportunity to consider future lives that may be saved.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages. The nation averaged 3,536 fatal, unintentional drownings annually between 2005 and 2014. That's about 10 a day.

Accidents will always happen. There is no method or strategy that can entirely protect against them. But awareness of factors that have been demonstrated to increase the chances of drowning can help reduce them.

What are those factors that increase the risk of drowning? Again, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• A lack of swimming ability -- People will spend small fortunes on golf or tennis lessons, but ignore the lifelong benefit that can be found in swimming lessons. Formal lessons by a trained professional can make a huge difference. People often overestimate their capacity for strong swimming then panic when the unexpected happens.

• A lack of close supervision -- Drowning occurs quickly and quietly, so supervision should come from an adult not involved in any other distracting activity, whether it's grilling or reading or checking social media. Yes, perhaps that spoils the fun a bit, but if safety is the goal, it's a reasonable trade off.

• Failure to wear life jackets -- Life jackets can save swimmers who get tired, who suffer seizures or cramps or who are involved in an accident that disables them. Coast Guard-approved life jackets (not air mattresses or floating toys) are designed to keep people face up, heads out of the water, even when they're unconscious.

• Alcohol use -- Consumption of alcohol is involved in up to 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation.

How can people prevent drownings or be ready to respond if one happens?

• Learn CPR. Paramedics take several minutes to respond even in the best of situations. For a drowning victim, minutes can mean death or serious brain damage. CPR is no guarantee, but can save lives and reduce the long-term impact of a near-drowning.

• Some will dismiss this recommendation quickly, but is alcohol consumption worth someone's life? When swimming, stay sober.

• Use a buddy system, pairing up swimmers to keep an eye on one another.

• Be aware of and avoid drop-offs and hidden obstacles in natural water sites. Always enter water feet first. Swimming in a natural body of water is far different from swimming in a pool.

• Know your limits and respect them. Don't start swimming for a distant boat or rock that may be beyond your abilities. Wear a life jacket.

Naturally, nobody sets out for a day of fun at the lake or creek believing a tragedy is going to happen. We can't sit around fretting about such dangers or let them keep us from enjoying the natural world around us. But wisdom is found in preparedness.

Commentary on 07/14/2017

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