Shawn Jimmie, 06-10-03

By TATABOLINE BRANT, Anchorage Daily News, June 12, 2003

Boy, 5, drowns in Kuskokwim River
DEATHS: Child was fifth drowning victim in Alaska this month, troopers say.

A 5-year-old boy drowned Tuesday in the Kuskokwim River, the third child to drown in the Bush in less than two weeks and the fifth person to drown in Alaska this month, Alaska State Troopers said.

Shawn Jimmie was playing with friends on a dock in his hometown of Kwigillingok, population 344, when he fell into the Kuskokwim River around 8:15 p.m., troopers said. The boy was not wearing a life jacket, said Bethel-based 1st Sgt. Duke Ballard.

One of Shawn's friends ran to get help. Shawn was retrieved by boat about five minutes after he fell in, troopers said. CPR was performed for about an hour and a half, but Shawn could not be resuscitated. His body was released to his family, troopers said.

State officials say the string of drownings so far this summer points to the threat Alaska's cold, swift-flowing water can pose, especially to kids. The threat often shows itself most severely in Bush Alaska.

On June 3, 13-year-old Pat Norback drowned in the Kuskokwim near McGrath while swimming with friends. On June 4, 11-year-old Sandra Roehl of Bethel went under in the Johnson River. She was found five to 10 minutes later but could not be revived. None of the children was wearing a life jacket, troopers said.

Alaska had the highest rate of accidental drowning in the country in 1998, followed by Mississippi and Louisiana, according to statistics compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2000, the most recent data immediately available.

Martha Moore, injury prevention program manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said geography plays a major role in the high drowning rate. "We have over 47,000 miles of coastline," she said. "And people travel on water often. In some smaller communities, it's like traveling on roads."

And the water in Alaska is unforgiving, she added -- even in the summer. Fast currents and cold temperatures make for a small window to survive, she said.

Moore said she had a hunch that the number of drownings in Alaska had decreased over the last decade, due to more awareness and better laws and education programs.

While figures for all of the past 10 years were not immediately available, the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics said the number of reported accidental drownings has dropped in the last three years. There were 35 in 2000, 39 in 2001, and 32 in 2002. About a quarter of all the deaths were kids 16 and younger.

No 2003 figures were available.

The rate of drownings for the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta -- where Sandra and Shawn drowned -- is about 10 times the national rate, said Gretchen Brown, injury prevention data specialist for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. "That is a really astronomical number," she said.

About half of all the drownings in the YK Delta over the last three years have been transportation-related, Brown said -- people falling through the ice while traveling on four-wheelers or snowmachines. About 70 percent of those accidents involved alcohol, she said.

The other half of the drownings in the Delta during that period were kids swimming, Brown said. The water is cold and they lose muscle coordination, she said.

The Kuskokwim, for example, rarely gets above 50 degrees and the currents are strong, Brown said. Even the best swimmers would have a hard time in the river, she said.

One of the things the YK Health Corp. has done to help prevent future drownings is launch a "Kids Don't Float" program, Brown said.

Kids Don't Float was started by a man in Homer in the mid-1990s and incorporates an education program and a life jacket lending station, much like the one at Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage.

The program has been credited with saving at least six kids in Alaska since it started, Moore said, and has spread to a few other states.

Brown said this is the second year for the program in the Delta. So far, there are eight life jacket lending stations in six of the 48 villages in the region. Two others are slated to go up in Tununak this year. The hope is to put the stations in all of the communities, Brown said.

Brown said the health corporation pays the roughly $180 for the supplies to build the station, and the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska pay for the life jackets.

The trick is finding someone in each village willing to take responsibility for the station and check on it weekly to make sure the wind hasn't blown it over or the life jackets aren't missing, she said.

YK Delta villages interested in bringing the Kids Don't Float program to their community can call Brown at 1-800-478-4471, ext. 6085. Other interested persons can call the Kids Don't Float program at 907-465-4170.

Reach Daily News reporter Tataboline Brant at or 257-4321.