Tina Crawford, 06/14/99

ADN 06/21/99

A family is grieving in Fairbanks.

Tina Crawford drowned in the Chena River June 14. She jumped in the waterway after her 10-year-old son stepped in a hole and got swept away. In going to his rescue, she did what comes naturally to a parent: She put her life on the line.

A short midweek news brief noted that the pair "floated together for a short time" but became separated. The boy was later rescued from a sandbar but his mother died after she was pulled unconscious from the water. Neither wore a life jacket, more properly known as a personal flotation device.

Tragically, drownings such as Ms. Crawford's are all too common in Alaska. In fact, the 49th state leads the nation in drowning rates.

Last year, 38 people died in Alaska's waterways.

This year, a handful of recent back-to-back drownings have set an ominous tone for the busy summer season ahead.

Here in Southcentral, officials were tipped to a possible drowning in May when a canoe and backpack were found floating in a lake west of Wasilla. The body of an Anchorage man was later retrieved from the lake bottom. He had not outfitted himself in a PFD and was canoeing alone.

The next weekend, another Anchorage man drowned in the Kenai River after he exited an overloaded canoe that was filling with water. Each of the four canoeists -- two men and two children -- had in hand borrowed life jackets, but only the kids were actually wearing theirs. The men were reportedly sitting on their PFDs.

More than likely, the man who drowned figured he wouldn't need a jacket and, besides, if something unexpected happened, he'd have time to don one. His mistaken assumption is a common problem among boaters across the nation. Too many water recreationists are under the false impression that they'll have time to don a PFD if disaster strikes. Too many times, reality is different than the anticipated and death comes calling.

Of course, wearing a PFD and following proper water etiquette cannot prevent every drowning. This is Alaska and nature can be unforgiving. But as it is, eight in 10 drowning-related deaths involve boaters who aren't wearing life jackets or who are wearing them improperly.

They aren't failproof, but a personal flotation device is the first line of defense for anyone taking to or playing around Alaska's waterways.