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Another Avoidable Tragedy

June 07, 2002

It's a sure bet that the next time police officers are called to a home with a swimming pool because a child has disappeared, they will dredge the bottom of the pool. But unfortunately, even if Los Angeles Police Department officers had not conducted such a bush league investigation, it wouldn't have saved 7-year-old Paolo Ayala.

The boy probably died in an instant, long before police arrived or before anyone at the pool party to which he was invited noticed. Like too many kids in too many pools, Paolo probably just slipped quietly under the water, and away, in full view of adults and children.

Police officers arrived at the Holmby Hills home late Sunday afternoon after Paolo's parents came to pick up their son after a classmate's birthday party and discovered he was missing. Officers peered into the family pool and thought they saw a clear bottom. What they saw, it turns out, was chalky water that obscured Ayala's body until Tuesday morning, when a horrified housekeeper spotted it.

But for those two days, police focused on the possibility that Paolo might have wandered away and met with foul play in the park next door. Once the body was discovered, LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish inadvertently added to the Ayala family's anguish by at first insisting that someone must have dumped the body overnight, raising fears of a grisly murder. On Wednesday, the county coroner confirmed that the boy died Sunday as a result of an accidental drowning--he didn't know how to swim--and that his body had been in the murky pool all along.

However, the real lesson of young Paolo's death, the one that makes every parent shiver, is how instantly laughter can turn to tragedy. Avert your eyes from the pool, just for a minute, to finish a magazine article. Run for the telephone in the kitchen with a child hanging from the backyard jungle gym. Leave a child in the grocery cart in a crowded store while you grab a quart of milk on another aisle.

Tragic, avoidable accidents don't discriminate, every year claiming rich and poor children alike, those whose parents are distracted and exasperated and those who, like Franklin and Edwina Ayala, loved their son to pieces, trusting his safety in others' hands.

Another Southern California summer upon us. May Paolo Ayala's needless death teach, and spare others an unspeakable heartbreak.

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