On a gorgeous Sunday in July, Rebecca Burns of Saint Paul, MN and her family spent a perfect afternoon boating with their friends on the St. Croix River. It was the first 90 degree day of summer, and the river was packed with boaters, while the sandbars were a popular stop to get into the refreshing water for a swim.
By three in the afternoon, they had already been on the river for four hours and were ready to head home. The kids wanted to get in the water one more time so they decided to pull onto sandbar. Rebecca wasn't planning to get back in the water, but her son wanted her to come play with him so she relented.
She recalls children playing about in the water, and a child who was old enough to know better pretending he was drowning; he was yelling "Help me! I'm drowning!" She remembers being quite disgusted that a parent wasn't telling him to stop, because it wasn't funny to "cry wolf".
After some time playing, her son decided to head back to the beach. Rebecca decided to hang out in the water for just a little while longer since she had already gotten wet. It was then she heard someone behind her yelling "Help us!" At first she thought it was the child kidding around again, but then something made her turn around to look.
What she saw next was sheer panic.
There were four teenagers, two boys and two girls, frantically trying to stay afloat. They had gone past a steep drop-off in the water, and were now in trouble without being able to touch the bottom.
Rebecca had grown up on a lake and was quite confident in the water. Her and her friends used to pretend the be lifeguards and would try to drown each other in the water, holding onto each other and trying to fight each other off.
She believes this childhood play is what was about to save her own life.
She knew better. She knew she shouldn't go to them without floatation devices. She knew she was putting her own life at risk. But she also knew she didn't have any other choice. No one on the beach could hear their screams, no one noticed what was happening just feet away from the shore.
She did what she knew she shouldn't. She went to them. One of the girls had a lifejacket on, however, she didn't have it clipped. The other three were trying to cling to her, attempting to stay afloat. The lifejacket was floating up and off of her because it wasn't secured, and they all four were frantic.
As she approached them, the girl with the lifejacket attached to her. She was flailing and screaming and practically pulling Rebecca under the water with her. Rebecca feared that this girl was going to drown her, and no one would see it or know what happened to them.
"I thought we were all going to drown, and no one would know what happened to us."
It was then Rebecca realized she was going to need help and started screaming for her friend, Ben. We are trained to hear our own name being called out over the noise of other screaming. She continued to yell his name while trying to get the girl with the lifejacket to quit panicking.
After what felt like five minutes, Ben finally heard Rebecca's yell and came out to assist her. Because he is over six feet tall he was able to reach out to the boys and pull them to where he could touch. While he was doing this, his friend brought the boat out. It was during this time that Rebecca realized the other girl was really struggling. She would go under water for several seconds before surfacing and gasping for breath. Because the girl with the lifejacket was kicking and screaming and pulling her under, she wasn't able to get out to the other girl.
Once the boat arrived and they got the three teens into it, Rebecca put on her own lifejacket and went out to try to find the other remaining girl. She swam and kicked her feet under water trying to find her until the Search and Rescue team arrived. Rebecca and her friends watched for three hours until they found her lifeless body.
Expectedly shaken after this preventable incident, with scratch marks on her arms and legs still healing, Rebecca wanted to speak out about water safety. She stated that this experience has changed her confident attitude about water. From now on she will always wear her life jacket in the water. Had she been wearing hers, she would have easily been able to assist the four teenagers.
She has three important water safety tips for parents and water-goers:
- Always wear your lifejacket, and make sure it is fully clipped on. Even if you're a strong swimmer, you never know when you may need to assist someone else.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 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.