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Parents More Vigilant Over Pools

Drowning: The death of a boy at a swim party has prompted hosts to hire lifeguards, take CPR.

June 17, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The highly publicized drowning two weeks ago of a 7-year-old boy at a Holmby Hills swim party while a group of adults stood poolside has jolted many parents, who are cringing over their sometimes lax practices at swim parties and are vowing vigilant poolside supervision this summer.

The drowning of Paolo Ayala, who was found in the pool two days after he drowned in cloudy waters that obscured the bottom, has also prompted a noticeable spike in enrollment in CPR courses, swim lessons and requests for private lifeguard services, according to Red Cross officials and aquatic center directors.

"When there is an incident such as the Holmby Hills tragedy so close to summer, it really is a wake-up call to parents," said Lisa Derderian, spokeswoman for the San Gabriel Valley Red Cross. She noticed a surge of interest in infant and child CPR classes, which are booked up for weeks, when normally there are summer vacancies.

"It's end-of-school swim parties, it's Fourth of July, it's a greater awareness of the need to be prepared since 9/11," Derderian said. "And then this drowning ... it all starts to hit home."

On the Westside, the Red Cross said visits to its water safety Web site, www.acrossla.org, have more than doubled--from 700 to more than 1,500 daily--since the discovery of Paolo's body on June 4. Also, enrollment this month in CPR classes is 30% higher than last year, which officials attribute to both a public awareness campaign and the recent drowning.

In Pasadena, Patty Kenmore, director of the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, said she has been surprised by the volume of recent calls from parents seeking to hire lifeguards for their children's parties, an emerging safety trend at private backyard pool gatherings. She recalled perhaps five calls the entire summer last year.

"In the last few weeks alone we've already gotten 12 calls for guards," Kenmore said. "People are definitely reacting to this tragedy."

The hard-to-believe news of the Holmby Hills drowning was that the child lay unseen at the bottom of the swimming pool for nearly 48 hours while police mounted an intense neighborhood-wide search. Paolo, who could not swim, sank underwater without anyone noticing, although there were about 10 parents and about 20 schoolmates at the party.

Police and others repeatedly looked in the pool, seeing what looked like a white bottom. The body was discovered in the deep end after a pool maintenance man chemically treated the water. The bottom, it turned out, was not smooth and white as searchers had thought. It was bluish and battered looking.

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Party Scene

But it's not so much the unusual condition of that pool that has chilled parents. It's the familiarity of the family pool party scene that they can readily envision--chatty adults and splashing, playful children--prompting a sobering evaluation of where they, too, have gone wrong and need to improve.

"I had a pool party the very same day that the little boy died," said Jeannie Joe, 49, of South Pasadena. She said parents stood nearby, but no one was assigned the sole task of pool supervision. She was in and out of the pool area tending to the party. "We all felt so comfortable."

No more, though. "The next party is going to be more structured," she said.

Joe has enacted strict rules for her next pool gathering this week. She is placing a director's chair, a sign up sheet and a timer at the head of the pool. Parents will rotate responsibility for watching the pool in 15-minute increments. She will ask parents about their children's swimming capabilities before they enter the pool. And all parents will be invited to stay to help supervise their children.

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Empathy for Parents

"It's OK to be paranoid," Joe said. "I'm sure the parents who have lost children to drownings wish they had been more paranoid."

Joe was among several hundred parents who stood in line for hours Saturday to sign up for swim lessons at South Pasadena High School. Pool director Steve Reyes, who manages the summer lessons, said he had a last-minute demand for sign-up information, which he attributed in part to publicity over the drowning.

Rick Steffann, 51, said he has a renewed resolve to continue to inspect the pool for clarity and stay with his 7-year-old son during pool parties, believing that it is his responsibility, not the hosts', to supervise his child.

"You know parents are going to be talking to each other," he said. "I absolutely am going to stay through the parties."

One Alhambra mother, who hosted a children's party at her home a week ago, sensed parents' heightened concern and made an extra effort to call and explain how her party would be supervised--one adult "standing sentry" at each end of the pool for the duration of swim time.

Laura Cisneros hired a lifeguard for an end-of-school swim party for seventh-graders at her La Canada home Friday. Hillary Degani, a UC Davis sophomore who works at the Rose Bowl pool in the summer, supervised the party.

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