The longest minute

Two kids might have drowned yesterday…on my watch. I wanted to post this just to reinforce for everyone how true every single water-safety cliché we see on the TV actually is.

But—first—everyone is okay and slept in their beds last night. Except me. I’m chugging on about 2 hours fitful sleep. Even Tolkien’s epic anglo-saxon poetry didn’t help scrub the images from behind my eyelids. So forgive this long post, it’s serving as a quasi therapy for me today. (I’m keeping young names out of it since it’s the message and not the individuals that I want to share and since they’re not my kids to name).


Ours was a family BBQ gathering like any other, a pool like any other and three 6-8yo kids splashing and playing like any other kids, racing across the shallows and zooming around on pool-noodles. Two have good swimming skills, one is still developing them but was happily staying in the shallow end. I was the supervising adult watching their pre-lunch swim and we had another adult keeping a patrol-esque secondary eye out from outside the pool area, too, while supervising some other kids.

Two of the three kids were enjoying their last 5mins of being wet before coming in for lunch, co-piloting a single pool-noodle at the shallow end.

Until they weren’t.

Cliché 1: “I only looked away for a second.” About ten seconds in my case. It really does happen that fast. Happy playing and splashing one moment, I turned to ask someone…something… (to get our sausages from the fridge, I think) and while I did that the two on the pool-noodle drifted over the pool’s ‘drop off’ into the deeper end without noticing. The less confident of the two slipped off the noodle almost immediately and couldn’t find the bottom with his feet. He was tired from swimming and racing in the shallows and he started scrabbling for that noodle, pushing his much lighter cousin under in his panic. She’s a good little swimmer but not with 20kg of terrified boy using her for emergency floatation. All of this happened in that ten seconds.

Cliché 2: “Drowning is silent.” It was. Utterly. Neither of these kids made a single sound, even the scrabbly panic wasn’t very splashy. It was the third child who was calling out to the first to get off his sister that got my attention. Thank god for him and his robust lungs. I gave it about 2 seconds to see if they were just mucking around, saw the look of panic on the one face desperately trying to stay above water and I moved.

So it’s not enough to keep an ear-out. It has to be your eyes.

Cliché 3: “A child can drown in 20 seconds” That was what was banging through my head as I jumped fully clothed into the water. I was particularly thinking it as I lurched (I don’t think we can really call it swimming) across the pool to them because *I* couldn’t touch the bottom either and I’m more of what you would call an exhibition swimmer. I like to float around giving the appearance of swimming. But I knew I was strong enough to get to them (and I was). What I didn’t count on was that I wouldn’t be strong enough to get a combined 35kg of young life above the waterline—and keep them up. In fact, I ended up sucking in as much pool water as they did.

Cliché 4: “Call for backup before you jump in” I did, twice. In my head, the first was a full-on banshee yell, but only one person actually heard it from what I can gather and everyone was seated less than 10m from the pool.

Inexplicably, I yelled ‘Somebody!’ as I ran to dive in, rather than ‘help!’. Why would I do that? I know you’re supposed to call ‘fire’ instead of ‘help’ if you’re being attacked because it gets more of a reaction from the public but I really think that ‘help’ was the phrase-that-pays here. I wonder, again, whether I was still not wanting to make that scene even as I ran toward the pool edge. No-one wants to pull the Stop-Train cord, right? I did manage ‘help’ once I was in the water but that was half-underwater gurgle so no-one heard that.

TBH, I think it was the tsunami-esque splash of me doing a bombie into the pool that got attention, not my call out.

Cliché 5: “Kids can drown anywhere” These two were in trouble less than a meter from the pool edge. That’s all the distance I had to get them across but in the moment it might as well have been a mile. We seemed to have no trouble drifting further into the deep end as we struggled, but getting to the edge felt like it took forever. Maybe that’s something to do with the nature of water and volume, I don’t know, maybe that’s what drew them deeper in the first place. Sciencey types might know. I just saw how very true that water-safety cliché is.

Cliché 6: “Kids don’t help themselves” I’d heard that somewhere and never really believed it. Who wouldn’t try to save their own life? Aren’t we born with the instinct? But of two kids, I had one climbing up me like a cat in a flood–scrabbling blindly up the first tree to float along. He was probably close enough to reach out for the edge but he seemed almost incapable of anything but the desperate inward dog paddle as he seemed to completely forget how to swim.

The other, the littlest, didn’t do anything when I first got my arm around her and she even slipped out of my grasp at one stage. She was underwater the whole time. I was terrified she was unconscious, actually, because she seemed non-responsive. But she wasn’t, I think she’d just shut down for survival (you hear about that as well). I took me two goes to get her up (so sorry, poppet, not very gently) and handed her up to…someone…as twenty adults all arrived by the pool’s edge.

And then the whole world burst into action and there were reaching arms and crying kids and proffered towels and worried faces everywhere. And my strongest memory was of turning around and seeing the brother with the robust lungs, standing all alone, crying and trembling in the shallows. For me, yesterday was all about him. It was his urgency that really sped things up and helped me to realise what was happening. I truly think he saved his sister’s life and his cousin’s yesterday by calling out so quickly.

The whole thing happened and was over in under a minute I think (not totally sure, time did that whole timey-wimey thing that happens when you’re in a crisis)

So, everything everyone has ever said about what happens in these situations is completely true. I now know that from experience and never, ever want to try for a do-over.

But there’s some others too, and I’m not sure if this was just me or if they are just things that people don’t’ talk about…but I’ll talk about them…

1. Don’t hesitate. Will I jump into this pool and then discover they’re just mucking around? Am I about to make a monumental spectacle of myself? TBH, those two things still bothered me even as every other adult in the place was reaching into the pool to haul the kids up. And I’m not even sure they knew whether or not it was the real deal. The expression on their faces could have been concern but it could also have been the veiled bemusement you get when someone does something truly inexplicable at a family gathering.

But, I had the whole afternoon to go over the order of events and there’s now no question in my mind that it was the real deal in progress. Especially for the littlest one—things were close to getting extremely real for her—she was easily under for the 20 seconds and I think closer to 30. Sucking in a gut-full of water the whole time.

My hesitation was two seconds long, while I looked to see if they were actually just playing around. But it was there. And it makes me wonder how many other people hesitate—or hesitate longer—and never talk about it. And whether their reasons for it were as lame as mine.

Better that you make a spectacle of yourself there than at a child’s funeral, right?

2. You’re not as strong as you imagine. Thank goodness I was in a pool surrounded by people and not in open water alone because there is no way I would have been able to hold both of them up for long. We’ve all heard the stories of the adult that runs into the riptide to help a child and ends up drowning, themself. Yesterday the reality for me was that I just didn’t have the upper-body strength to keep two people (even little ones) and myself above surface for very long. Not when they weren’t really being a party to their rescue. One child, sure—I totally would have done the whole, flip-em on their back and chin-tow them back to safety like I learned in high-school. But two… no-one ever really tells you what to do with two. At once.

And in those seconds that felt like minutes while I was trying to tread water with 35kg of combined kiddage in my arms and get to them to the (not-very-distant) side, the awful thought that I might have to get one to the side and go back for the other was just…there. What would I have done?

How the heck does anyone triage a moment like that?

The littlest one was light and a strong swimmer (when not being pressed underwater) but already possibly unconscious, the other was conscious but weak in the deep and heavier. If he went to the bottom would I have the strength to pull him back up in the deep? If she did, how much damage would that cause given she’d already been under a while? There was no good option and so I held onto both of them, but I reckon I would have lasted about 45 seconds, max, doing that if we hadn’t reached the pool-side and those reaching arms.

What is it about water that it can turn its buoyancy on and off at bloody will…?

3. Adrenaline is not necessarily your friend. If there was any adrenaline at all it didn’t really help me. Certainly no beneficial Hulk-esque surges you read about. In fact, all it seemed to do was to rob me of breath and energy that I really needed in that moment. I’m pretty pissed at adrenaline now, actually.

4. You’re not as brave as you think. There’s this thing that I think we all secretly lie to ourselves about… What we would do in an emergency, how we would be. Maybe writers are particularly bad for that because we build scenarios in our sleep. I do it all the time. And ones about myself are always vaguely complementary if not abundantly flattering.

But, yesterday, the reality was far from flattering.

When I fly and score an exit row seat and they ask me whether I’d be able to operate the doors in a crisis, I always say yes (pfff, they’re essentially pneumatic, right?) and tell them that I’m great in a crisis. Exactly the sort of clear head you want when your plane is crashing. Pick me! But… wow… who am I kidding! Not only was I slow to get to the kids because I apparently forgot how to swim in the moment, and not only did I not have the strength to hold their heads up for particularly long (even though I should be insanely boyant), I also went to pieces as soon as it was over. Not good in a crisis at ALL!

I had exactly the same biological process in the water that the kids were going through—panicking, shutting down, haemorrhaging strength—and so if it had gone on much longer I might also have needed rescuing. (Under a minute… ridiculous!)

5. Look before you leap (aka Have a plan) In hindsight, there were a number of more intelligent and MacGyver-esque things I could have done… Run to the other side of the pool and reached them with my arm. Or used the pool scoop. Grabbed another pool toy and thrown it to one as a life preserver then jumped in for the other one.

If I’d been writing the scene instead of living it I would have dived in (instead of jumping) to get more distance and I would have wrapped my legs around the one caught underwater while getting the top one to the side with my arms. And I would have been shaken but stoic afterwards.

It would have been dramatic and clever and valiant.

Um… yeah. No.

I leapt in with no plan because… I just didn’t have one. And leaping in is kind of what you do when kids are in trouble, right? But the plan could have been as easy as keeping a floatation device on my lap while supervising. Lifeguards have them for a reason. And a whistle or something that would cut through my family’s annual-catchup-chatter. Maybe being the supervising adult should also come with more than just a willingness to get wet. I had plenty of time to think of a plan as I sat there watching these kids race up and down the shallow end for an hour. And probably I should have.

So…all afternoon and last night my self-dialogue went like this: not fast enough, not fit enough, not buoyant enough, not adrenalized enough, not attentive enough, not loud enough, not courage-under-fireish enough, not rescue material

But you know what I finally decided?

It doesn’t matter if it’s not movie-scene stylish, or if you make a monumental dick of yourself. You just have to get there, and be there. Yesterday being there was enough but—God—all I can think about is what if it hadn’t been.

Every cloud…

There was one silver lining…. My cousin bought her man over to meet us all for the first time and, really, what makes for a better ice-breaker/conversation starter than two kids in peril and a fat lady jumping fully-clothed into a pool.

You’re welcome, Joe. 🙂


  1. Erika

    Nothing else matters than the fact you saved them. Everyone went home last night, shaken, but safe.

    Now at school swimming lessons they have started giving the kids an emergency scenario and testing their initiative, they have to work out who to save first and how. I’m not sure that even that could over rule the instinct to jump in when a child is in trouble though. I hope you can sleep peacefully again soon, you should, you did well.

  2. Very timely reminder Nikki. Thank you.
    So glad that it all ended well and the kids were safe.
    Now, I know…you really are a heroine!

  3. Nikki, I’ve been there too, except I wasn’t the one who jumped in – because I didn’t see in time. I was a teenager at the time and it has seared my memory ever since. Thank you for sharing this story. You don’t really understand how constant constant vigilance needs to be until you’ve seen. I hope your story helps some others understand. And I’m so glad that everyone is okay.

  4. I hope you got them straight to emergency for a check up as they had water in their lungs? Please get then to a doctor asap.

  5. All I can say is, thank God you jumped in and thank God you were there watching. It’s true it only takes one second to go under.

  6. Laura Jacobson

    Wow, this story brought tears to my eyes. that could have gone horribly wrong and so glad it didn’t. I have experienced a near drowning and know how gut wrenching it is. We were away on holiday at the Grampians and my son wanted to go swimming in the middle of winter. I agreed and stood at the side of the pool and watched. He was a good swimmer and was in lessons. He moved away from the edge and panicked and suddenly lost all the swimming lesson knowledge that had been taught to him. It was quick, I cannot explain how quick it was, his hands were up in the air and he was fighting to breathe as he bobbed up and down in the water, now he was going under. There was not one sound, no scream and no call for help. I made a decision to dive in clothes and all. I grabbed him and got him to the edge and it was so cold. I still remember the silence was the scariest part, that I couldn’t hear anything aside from a splash here and there that would not alert anyone to someone drowning.
    I wrote this so you know your not alone and I know full well how scary it is and how you go over and over it replaying it in your mind. NO AMOUNT of swimming lessons can prepare your child, no matter how strong a swimmer or how great a swimmer when your child is in another environment, so not the pool they normally swim in then they are all at risk of drowning. The cliches are all true. We also live on a big block and have 3 neighbours with swimming pools, we never thought our children would ever be in danger until one day I caught my second son standing on top of a ride on car with his leg half over next doors fence and his little brother in tow watching. We drove up to Bunnings and we extended the fence. It angers me that my children arnt safe in their own backyard. We can’t leave them alone as children are very crafty. I just wanted to let people know that you don’t even have to have your own pool for a child to drown, they can drown in the neighbours pool, the bathtub if your not watching. So I want to thank you for telling your story and sharing it. Too many children drown and unecessarily. So take care near water and awareness is the key.

    • Oh Laura, how terrifying to watch it happen right before your eyes. I’ve seen more and more posts like ours ‘out there’ so I hope that finally the word is getting out.

      Drowning looks nothing like you imagine….

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