Why Do People Often Drown Together?

A spate of recent drowning incidents has highlighted the fact that many people do not know the correct way to try to help a drowning victim.

All too often, upon seeing a drowning person in distress, people try to help and end up drowning themselves, said B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Indeed, in a recent drowning of four men in an Idaho reservoir earlier this week, and in the drowning of six teens in a Louisiana river earlier this month, tragedy unfolded when bystanders attempted to help a victim in distress in the water, only to drown themselves.

Although every drowning incident is different, Brewster said, one way they play out disastrously is if the water appears calm. A rescuer may think his swimming skills are sufficient to allow him to cover the distance to the distressed person in peaceful-looking waters. It’s what happens next that causes the problem.

"For example, the lake is calm, but the distressed person is so panicked that they grab on to the person trying to help them, and both succumb," Brewster said.

The best way to approach a drowning victim is with a floatation device, Brewster said.

"If you lack training in rescuing, it is enormously dangerous to attempt a rescue," even for strong swimmers, Brewster said. The safest action to take is to throw a floatation device to the person.

If that can't be done or the person is out of reach, a rescuer should take a floating object with them when they enter the water.

"What you want to do is to avoid contact," he said, "that contact is what results in death."

Professional ocean lifeguards always take a floatation device with them when they go into the water to make a rescue.

If you push a floating object toward a person, they will automatically grab onto it, Brewster said, which will keep the rescuer safely out of the distressed person's frenzied grasp.

If standard rescue devices are not available, then everyday objects can be used instead, he said. For example, a cooler that is emptied and locked or snapped shut will float.

"Anything that floats," he said, can be used in a pinch.

Of course, perhaps the best way to avoid tragedies is to swim only where there are lifeguards present, Brewster said. The USLA collects national data on drowning and rescues from lifeguard-manned surf beaches — which are those along oceans or other bodies of water large enough to generate surf — and has calculated that the chances of drowning at such a beach are 1 in 18 million visits.

"We live in a society that celebrates heroes and heroism," he said, but it's important for would-be rescuers to understand the dangers of going after a distressed person in the water. "The important thing to understand is that there are tremendous risks, and that there are ways to limit those risks."

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.