Shaun Skursky and his family were on vacation in South Carolina recently, enjoying an evening swim at their North Myrtle Beach hotel pool. He was splashing around with his 1-year-old son, when he heard a scream for help.
Skursky, an officer at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, scooped up little Jackson, sensing there was no time to lose, and ran toward the commotion in the lazy river attraction at the Avista Resort.
“That is when I saw the two boys in the water,” Skursky said. The bigger of the two boys was fully submerged; his knee jammed into the open suction drain.
Skursky plunged into the lazy river still holding Jackson, who was bobbing safely in his yellow inflatable “floaty.”
He tried to lift the older boy out of the pool, but couldn’t shift his limp body away from the force of the drain.
“When I got there, he was unconscious,” said Skursky. “There was no fight in him.”
Skursky, who had been trained in CPR, knew the boy needed oxygen immediately. The father of two ducked his head underwater and began to force air into the child’s mouth.
A preventable danger
Reports of people becoming trapped in circulation equipment at pools, spas or whirlpool baths are extremely rare. Between 2012 and 2016, there were 17 such cases, with about half occurring in public settings. Twelve of those involved children younger than 15 years old. There were two deaths, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
There have been some high-profile cases.
Former presidential candidate and plaintiffs attorney John Edwards, won a $25 million landmark case in 1993 after a child, who suffered internal injuries, became caught on the suction drain of a pool. The child survived.
In 2013, Usher Raymond V, the 5-year-old son of the music mogul, nearly drowned when his arm became stuck in a pool drain while he was trying to get a toy.
Maria Bella, an aquatics and drowning expert with Robson Forensic experts, said such incidents are preventable.
“There should be no entrapment incidents in the U.S. or in any facilities abroad that have U.S. bases of operations,” she said. “It is a well-known hazard that can be properly mitigated and we have federal law that requires it.”
The federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act is named after the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, who died after she was dragged under the surface in a hot tub by the powerful suction. Since 2008 when the law was enacted, all pools and spas must meet federal standards including those for drain covers and automatic pump shut off systems.
Even with proper safety precautions, lazy rivers — which offer swimmers a meandering course to float along, often around a scenic theme park or hotel property — can still present safety challenges with water falls, spray devices or inner tubes that can obstruct sight-lines for lifeguards and parents. Inner tubes should be clear, said Bella, and parents should educate children to stay away from suction outlets, even if they’ve dropped a toy or accessory they want to retrieve.
Eight long minutes
Skursky, his girlfriend Melanie Duncan, their son and his daughter Makayla, 7, arrived at the beach resort on March 17. A couple days later, after a sightseeing tour and dinner out, Makayla asked whether they could take a late swim.
There was no lifeguard at the pool, only a “swim at your own risk” sign, said Skursky.
According to the North Myrtle Beach police report, officers were called to the resort about 9:30 p.m. for a possible drowning. They arrived to find a 12-year-old boy from Commerce Township, Mich., stuck underwater in the intake pump to the lazy river.
A hotel security video released by police shows two boys playing in the lazy river with inner tubes. One lifts a large grate from the floor of the lazy river. He goes underwater and doesn’t surface. A woman enters the pool and screams, and moments later Skursky can be seen jumping in.
Duncan and Mikayla, who were just moments behind Skursky and Jackson, ran to the hotel’s front desk to call 911 and to get the water pump to the lazy river shut off, Skursky said.
All the while, Skursky was diving down to force air into the boy’s lungs, and then trying to free him on his way up. “As many times as I went down, I tried to pull [him] up,” he said.
Another hotel guest, Tim Corey, was talking to one of the maintenance men at the facility when they heard that the boy was trapped. Corey — who happens also to be a corrections officer, but in New York — jumped in to help Skursky, but the two men still could not free the boy.
Minutes went by before rescuers from the North Myrtle Beach Police and Fire and Rescue arrived. Even with four people trying to pull the boy up, his knee remained jammed. It wasn’t until maintenance crews shut off the water pressure that they were able to free the child, Skursky said.
Before the boy was on the pool deck, the North Myrtle Beach rescuers — who also dove under to force air into the boy — began CPR.
The boy had been underwater for more than eight minutes.
During a later investigation, the hotel staff showed a North Myrtle Beach officer the screws used to hold the cover grate in place. They were “very rusted and in small pieces.” A second grate had the same rusty screws and was easily dislodged, according to the police report.
The Avista Resort, a family-owned oceanfront hotel with more than 1600 units, did not return calls.
Home and back in school
In an interview with the NBC News in Detroit, the boy’s mother Alyssa Pappas, said the near drowning “has been very traumatic” for their family.
Her son, Evan, lifted the lazy river grate up to try to retrieve part of a pair of goggles that had fallen through. He spent eight days on a ventilator, three of those in a medically induced coma. He is now home and back at school although the family still worries there might be some health effects, including brain and lung injuries.
“It is just a miracle I think,” Pappas said. “I am truly grateful for everything [Skursky] has done.”
Skursky kept replaying the scene in his head in the days that followed.
“I was a wreck,” he said. “There were times I didn’t think I did enough.”
It wasn’t until Skursky saw the video that he fully understood what had happened. He and Corey have remained in touch. In April, the two were invited back to North Myrtle Beach to receive a “life-saving” award along with the other rescuers.
“Everyone involved did their part as a team and we saved this little boy’s life,” Skursky said.