When kids struggle in the water, "it isn't like the movies," says the country artist, who lost his 3-year-old son last year in a pool accident. He's now leading the way to help educate other parents about the misconceptions and to keep children safer around water

By Nancy Kruh
July 01, 2020 10:25 AM
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Granger Smith and his wife, Amber, will never know how their 3-year-old son River managed to gain entry into their home's fenced pool, which led to his accidental drowning. But there are many things that the couple has learned in the year since they lost their little boy — perhaps, most soberingly, that drowning is the No. 1 cause of accidental injury death among children ages 1 to 4.

"It's not that that could have changed our outcome," the 40-year-old Texas artist tells PEOPLE, "but it would have been good to have heard more about it."

Adds Amber, 38: "It should definitely be talked about."

And so the Smiths are talking, speaking out with the hope that their loss will help prevent similar tragedies. The summer months are the peak time for child drownings, and most occur in the country's 10.4 million residential pools. Experts expect the numbers will spike this year as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps community pools closed or deters families from visiting these lifeguarded public facilities.

Granger Smith
Jack Thompson

The youngest of the three Smith children, River went into the water the evening of June 4, 2019, at the family's home outside Georgetown, Texas, as his father was mere feet away, his attention momentarily turned to his older children. By the time Smith rescued the boy, he had suffered catastrophic brain damage; he died two days later in an Austin children's hospital.

The Smiths had believed they'd taken every precaution that would keep their children safe. Yet they discovered, in the most heartbreaking way, that they could have been better informed.

They didn't know, for example, that drowning, particularly among children, is considered a "silent killer."

"It's not like the movies," says Smith. "To comprehend that you could lose someone to drowning 20 feet from you doesn't make any sense unless you know how that process works and that it's so silent. There isn't splashing or gurgling or kicking. There wasn't even a splash going in."

Granger and Amber Smith
Jack Thompson

William D. Ramos, a nationally recognized expert in pool safety and a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, explains that the silence is caused by "something we call 'instinctive drowning response.' All energy and all action go to preserve that the head is above water. Oftentimes, they can't wave or scream."

Children are especially at risk: They tend to take water into their lungs more quickly than adults, and they have far less muscle mass "to push against the water longer," says Ramos, who is a professor of health and wellness design at Indiana University in Bloomington. "It's just, unfortunately, a downhill cycle."

And it's one that can go even faster for youngsters. Smith estimates his son was in the water between 30 seconds and two minutes before he was rescued; experts say child drownings can occur in 30 seconds or less.

The Smiths say two steps might have changed their outcome: a second lock on the fence and an alarm that goes off when an unsupervised pool is entered.

Granger Smith and late son River
Granger Smith/Instagram

Ramos affirms both preventative measures. "You just have to do regular inspections of your facility and just be aware of your child's changes in cognition and growth," he says. "Those make a huge difference in what will be a barrier and what won't be anymore."

But he warns parents not to rely simply on equipment to keep children safe. Like other experts, he talks about "layers" of vigilance to prevent children from entering a pool unsupervised, as well as to keep them safe during planned time in the water.

Because children often can't signal they're in trouble, they always need an adult "water watcher," says Joe Martyak, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees a "Pool Safely" campaign. "Somebody has to sit there and watch the kids like a lifeguard," Martyak says, "because basically, that's what they are."

Just like designated drivers, water watchers have to be committed to their singular responsibility. "You can't sit there and go, 'Okay, I'll watch the kids,' and then get on your phone while you're looking at them," Martyak says.

A summer pool safety tip
Courtesy American Red Cross

Since River's death, Granger and Amber Smith have become strong advocates for so-called "survival" swim classes that teach children as young as 6 months how to save themselves in the water.

Though Ramos knows of no research that's proven the techniques are effective, he doesn't discourage any activity that responsibly introduces children to water. "I think if parents find it interesting or intriguing and they want to put it in 'layering,' that's up to them," he says.

He also strongly encourages pursuing swimming lessons rather than relying on flotation devices, particularly the popular "water wings."

"There are a lot on the market that look like they're designed to keep your child afloat, but many haven't been tested to make sure they don't push the child forward into the water and that they don't puncture and leave the child without any support," Ramos says. "We really stick to the standard of Coast Guard-approved, which means they've been vetted and tested."

Even with every safety measure in place, parents still need to be prepared for the worst, say the experts. That includes having a plan in place for rescue. (The Red Cross' mantra is "reach or throw, don't go." In other words, using a reach tool or throwing an approved flotation device is much safer than jumping in.)

"Another thing that's important is, ideally, to know how to perform CPR," says Martyak. "A lot of people think, 'That's a good idea, and I'll have to learn how to do that someday.' The problem is, in the case of an emergency, if anybody around can do CPR until help arrives, it could be the difference between whether that child survives or doesn't."

Granger Smith and wife Amber with their children Lincoln and London
Jack Thompson

Again, the Smiths hope others learn from their mistakes. While Amber had taken a CPR class in high school, both parents had to rely on a 911 dispatcher to help them perform it on a 3-year-old.

"A child takes much smaller compressions," explains Ramos, "and a child takes much more frequent and shorter breaths. So there is a skillset involved there, for sure."

Both Ramos and Martyak say water-safety awareness should extend to every large water vessel in the household, not just professionally installed pools.

"We say you've got to be careful with water around the house, whether it's in a swimming pool or whether it's just a spa, an above-ground pool, a wading pool, a bathtub or a bucket of water," says Martyak. "If you keep a bucket of water in the backyard, kids can see the water, they splash, they fall in, and they drown because their head's in there."

If approached responsibly and respectfully, Ramos says, water shouldn't be something to fear. "Let's not forget that water is fun, enjoyable, therapeutic," he says. "It just comes with a specific set of rules to pay attention to. We're not natural-born swimmers, but there is no question that water is part of our being. I just always feel I need to remind people that."

The Red Cross offers a free online course, "Water Safety for Parents and Caregivers," that focuses on developing an awareness of the risks of drowning and how to minimize them. Also, its Water Safety for Kids site offers age-appropriate videos, activities and quizzes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission's Pool Safely program offers online and print resources for parents and caregivers to learn the facts about drowning and get tips about water safety.

For more from Granger Smith, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.