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Not one of the eight adults around the pool saw Kim and Lisa McMullin's toddler fall into it.

It was 1982. The McMullins were at a family pool party about 70 miles from St. Louis when their 22-month-old son, Nicholas, joined other children in playing tag. A child who was the sole swimmer in the pool at the moment found Nicholas at the bottom shortly afterward. Nicholas's father, Kim, a former Navy diver, pulled the boy out and tried CPR as they waited for an ambulance. Nicholas was airlifted to a St. Louis hospital where he was eventually taken off life support.

Joyce Russell wasn't with her son, David Jackson, 19, in 2017 when he disappeared under the water of Fugitive Beach, an old quarry turned into a swimming attraction near Rolla, Mo. Jackson, an athlete who had just finished his first year of college, was under water for about 20 minutes before he was found and rescued. He died a week later at a hospital. 

The two families shared their stories this week with a coalition of St. Louis city and county public safety officials, philanthropies and pool managers launching a coordinated effort to prevent drownings as the swimming season starts this Memorial Day weekend. They were brought together by the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis and the ZAC Foundation, a non-profit group advancing water safety founded by a family whose 6-year-old son died when his arm became trapped in a pool drain.

Drownings are among the leading causes of death for children, but the mostly easily preventable, the the coalition says. Swim classes and lifeguards are only part of the equation; other protections include proper barriers around pools, knowing differences between pools and natural waters, life jackets, and knowing CPR.

For years, the McMullins wondered what would have happened if they had taught Nicholas to roll over and float on his back; if they had clearly designated an adult to stand by the pool and keep watch; or had been better trained in CPR.

Their son now owns a swim school that teaches young children water safety skills. And they formed a foundation in recent weeks with a goal to educate about the risk of drownings.  

"We realized how little awareness there was around the dangers of child drownings," McMullin, of St. Louis, said. "And how eminently preventable they they are."

At least 3,709 people drowned nationwide in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ninety people drowned in Missouri in the same year, the CDC said. 

Drownings are the leading cause of cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and the second leading cause of unintentional deaths for children ages 14 and older, according to the CDC.

The statistics don't capture the impact of near-drownings. About 8,700 people younger than age 20 visited a hospital emergency department for a drowning event in 2017, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

The coalition wants to create an awareness campaign and comprehensive prevention plan that it can take nationwide. New Zealand and Canada have national drowning-prevention plans, but the U.S. does not, said Megan Ferraro, executive director of the ZAC Foundation. 

The St. Louis metropolitan area is one of three that the ZAC Foundation chose for the pilot program, in part because it serves as an example of racial and income-based disparities in water-safety resources and training. And there is an abundance of nearby open water that swimmers may not realize requires a different set of water safety know-how than pools. 

"It's a community at great risk and at great need," Ferraro said. "But these are solvable problems."

Disproportionate risk

Certain waterways have seen more drownings than others, including Fugitive Beach. A man from Belleville drowned near the same spot at Fugitive Beach as Jackson in June 2017. A 6-year-old boy from Fenton drowned there in 2014.

The Offsets, a swimming hole near Fredericktown, Mo. where at least nine people have died since the 1980s, announced Monday that it would "temporarily" shut down amid a legal fight with the state. In August the Missouri attorney general's office sued the owners of the Offsets, a flooded former quarry 70 miles south of St. Louis, following two drowning deaths there in July. 

And a stretch of the Meramec River at Castlewood State Park in south St. Louis County has claimed at least 14 lives in the last 14 years.

Pools involve a different set of risks. A St. Louis firefighter's son drowned at the HoteLumiere pool in August during a family party. Witnesses said the pool water was so murky no one could tell the boy was at the bottom.  Inspection reports showed the water was "murky and turbid," the pool lights were not on, the divider with floats between the shallow and deep end was not in place, the ring buoy rope was tangled, the line was not long enough to cover the length of the pool, and there was no shepherd's crook. 

The risk of drowning is disproportionately high for black children, who are four times as likely to drown than other groups, according to Bill Ramos, director of the Indiana University School of Public Health's Aquatic Institute.

That arises in large part from a history of segregation that barred African-Americans from swimming pools, leading to a generational unfamiliarity with swimming and water safety. In St. Louis, African-Americans weren't allowed entry into public pools until June 1949

And swimming classes may be a luxury that families cannot afford. Other obstacles may include a lack of access to safe swimming facilities.

Those attending the roundtable Tuesday floated a number of ideas to meet these challenges, including requiring swimming and water-safety training as a part of school physical education curriculum, and incorporating swimming and water-safety training in classes provided to expectant mothers.

They discussed partnering with transportation companies to bring more families to pools and using public safety departments to raise awareness.

'Eliminate it'

The ultimate goal of the campaign is not to frighten people away from water, said Dr. Flint Fowler, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. 

“We want them to understand the risks, learn how to be safe, and then take full advantage of the fun that can be experienced on the water," he said. 

The ZAC Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs have been offering swimming lessons, classroom curriculum and hands-on activities at water-safety camps at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis over the last two years.

St. Louis city pools offer free swimming lessons during summer months.

And the YMCA offers discounted swimming lessons for children year-round. 

Rob West, executive director of the YMCA in St. Louis' O'Fallon Park neighborhood, a predominantly black neighborhood, said instructors teach about 800 kids the basics of water safety each year. The facility offers swim lessons for $5. 

“I think it's so awesome that we are all coming together to deal with an issue that we can eliminate,” he said. “We can eliminate it. We want to say that we will never have a drowning, ever again.” 

Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.