Authorities urge swimming safety following accidents

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff Writer

A number of drownings and near-drownings have plagued the Sandpoint area this summer. Police Chief Corey Coon said that while the last few years weren’t too bad for water-related incidents, this summer seems to mark a “peak year.”

“It ebbs and flows like everything,” Coon said.

Last week, 17-year-old Isaac Grasser passed away three days after a tragic Aug. 1 drowning accident in Pend Oreille River that claimed the life of his 11-year-old brother, Michael Grasser. Sandpoint City Beach has also seen two near-drowning incidents so far this summer, and Coon said he couldn’t remember that last time that happened. It was two near-drownings too many, he said.

“I know for us in the city, that’s rare,” he said, adding that contributing factors to every incident are different, making it hard to pin down why there’s a spike in water-related incidents this summer. “Why? That’s a million-dollar question.”

Regardless of causes for each incident — weather conditions, inability to swim, etc. — Long Bridge Swim Director Jim Zuberbuhler said safe swimming starts with knowing your skill level and evaluating water conditions. The Long Bridge Swim funds a swim lesson program with the goal that every local child learn how to swim before third grade. This year, Zuberbuhler said the program helped over 1,000 children, including 30 with special needs.

“It’s hard to do something about (preventing drownings) in an acute way,” he said. “It’s really about the long-term program that we have in place, and that will yield results over time.”

Beyond skill level, Zuberbuhler said a swimmer should evaluate the water they’re about to jump in. With the cancellation of last weekend’s Long Bridge Swim due to poor conditions comes a good lesson for everyone, he said.

“Even though we had 711 registered swimmers, the right thing to do was call the event because we could not put people at risk,” he said. “And that’s a great metaphor for the choice an individual should make. Look at the conditions and make an informed choice.”

Something swimmers should also remember is that if a fellow swimmer is struggling, extending a hand or tossing them a flotation device is often more effective than jumping in.

“The best first response is to extend something to help that person, whether it’s a towel, your hand, a pole or a paddle, or even link people up,” he said. “It’s a tall order to rescue a person who is panicking regardless of how big they are.”

Aside from the swim lesson initiative, Zuberbuhler said the Long Bridge Swim underwrites the training required of lifeguards at City Beach. It’s a long and grueling process to become a lifeguard for the city, said Parks and Recreation Director Kim Woodruff. Before even applying for the job, applicants must have a Red Cross lifeguarding certification, and then once hired, they go through more than 40 hours of additional training through the United States Lifesaving Association. Woodruff said City Beach is the only location in the Inland Northwest with USLA trained lifeguards.

This summer’s lifeguards will be honored at an upcoming city meeting for successfully saving the two citizens who nearly drowned at the beach this season, Woodruff said.

“We are always looking for recruits for our guard program,” he said, adding applicants must be 16 or older. “It’s a great seasonal job, but it’s a very responsible and adult job.”

With six lifeguards on the beach at all times, Woodruff said there are plenty of eyes on both the north and south ends of City Beach. He said that even with so many highly trained lifeguards present, it’s important that people take the time to learn to swim.

“Water safety is so important, no matter how old you are,” he said. “There’s is no age limit. You’re never too old.”

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