First the family dog went into the surf at California’s Big Lagoon Beach on Saturday. When the dog didn’t come out, a 16-year-old boy went in to save the family pet from the rough waves. Then the teen’s father went into the 55 degree water, followed by the boy’s mother. The dog eventually got out of the water safely, while all three people died.
Such tragedies are fairly routine, clear down to the original “victim” surviving. The process even has a clunky name—“aquatic-victim-instead-of-rescuer syndrome”—and a passel of academics studying the dynamics, as Richard Korman explained to us last month in “Drowning in Good Intentions.”
His takeaway message was as pragmatic as it may be unpalatable: unprepared or untrained people should stay out of the water, even if it seems uncharitable or cowardly to do so.
Communicating the risks of rescue requires overcoming media that regularly glorify heroic risk-taking and self-sacrifice. Put another way, people don’t make local headlines by throwing someone a life preserver or running to get help.
But to [Australian researchers Richard C.] Franklin and [John H.] Pearn, having untrained rescuers going into the water “is really a last resort, and it should be an informed decision about the risks (this is the tough part).” And yes, that may mean relying on easy if less macho measures, including throwing flotation rings or reaching potential victims from safe places.
“We absolutely do not recommend people put themselves in danger or a situation where a rescuer can become a victim,” Tom Gill, the media representative for United States Lifesaving Association, told Korman, even while he acknowledged “people are going to make heroic acts. There’s always somebody who, during a robbery, will tackle a gunman; it’s not the safest or the smartest—but people do it.”
If that was your son in the water drowning, how analytical could you be? And if he died and Mom and Dad remained safe, that might be reckoned a victory knowing what did transpire, but what sort of scars would they carry?