How to help victims struggling in water, avoid double drowning

In 2022, Thomas Kenning died at Porter Beach in Indiana, trying to save teen from Lake Michigan

ByGinger Zee ABCNews logo
Tuesday, June 25, 2024
How to stay safe when pulling someone from water
Here's how to stay safe when pulling someone from the water.

SEABRIGHT, N.J. -- With summer in full swing, double drownings are becoming more common.

Double drowning refers to any situation where more than one person drowns.

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Each year, bystanders attempt to rescue someone in trouble in the water, only to get in trouble themselves.

And that is exactly what happened to Thomas Kenning in 2022. Kenning died at Porter Beach in Indiana while trying to save a teenager from Lake Michigan, before getting caught in the currents himself.

Officials said he was found between 20 and 30 feet from shore.

Kenning's parents recently visited Porter Beach after two years, following the death of their son.

"Tom, I could tell, was contemplating what to do," Shannon Kenning said. "He handed me his hat and his phone and started walking toward the water's edge."

"I think we all underestimate how turbulent, how strong this really is," Dennis Kenning said. "And that can overcome you so quickly."

This is a hidden danger seen every summer: Parents and brave bystanders attempt to rescue drowning victims, often on beaches without lifeguards.

While some are successful, far too often, neither the victim nor the rescuer survives.

SEE MORE: Our Chicago: Water Safety

"They might have this confidence because they know how to swim," Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project co-founder Dave Benjamin said. "They make that instant decision to jump in. That's unfortunately the moment when they learn trying to stay above the surface while you're holding on to someone is a very difficult process. It turns into a double drowning."

To illustrate how difficult it can be to rescue someone from turbulent waters, ABC chief meteorologist Ginger Zee teamed up with certified lifeguards at Skudin Surf in New Jersey, where choppy waves help simulate the chaos of a real ocean.

The first challenge wasn't to rescue a person but a 10-pound rubber diving brick, used by lifeguards to test their strength and endurance.

After diving in, grabbing the brick and making it back to shore with 2-foot waves, she said, "It was definitely a challenge, definitely hard, woo. My legs are burning."

For her next challenge, Zee was tasked with attempting to save a 12-year-old competitive surfer named Huda, who simulated a drowning victim. This can be dangerous because victims will often panic and can drag their rescuer under the water.

"This time, it feels much more real," Zee said. "As soon as I take on that weight, I immediately struggle to keep my head above water. Fortunately, since this pool is shallow and I'm not fighting a rip current, I don't need to hold him up very long."

For good measure, two dads, Ryan and Mike, volunteered to give both scenarios a try.

Ryan successfully rescued both the brick and the drowning victim. But, he admitted it was a lot harder than he thought.

"Even just swimming out there, my heart rate went up," he said. "It was very, very, very tiring."

Meanwhile, before Mike could make it to the brick, he signaled to lifeguards that he couldn't get there.

"You think you can do it, but the waves keep crashing, and you get tired and tired, and it's hard to just get to it," he said. "My arms were hurting, I mean even now, my heart's like boom, boom, boom. It's a lot more tiring than it looks like it would be."

Mike said, despite his struggle, if it were his kids, he'd still try to rescue them, putting his own life at risk.

Experts say the situation would have been more challenging if it had occurred in the Great Lakes or an ocean.

"In the pool, you have a controlled environment," Tom O'Neill from the United States Lifesaving Association said. "In the ocean, you are in seemingly relatively safe position one moment, and the next, you're swept off your feet, and you're 50 to 100 yards out to sea, and you really don't know what hit you."

But, there is a safer way to attempt to rescue a victim in the water.

Bringing a flotation device such as a boogie board could prevent double drowning.

Cliff Skudin, co-owner of Skudin Surf explains the best way to use a boogie board when attempting to rescue a victim.

"(Stay) far enough away from him that when you hand it to him, he's not on top of you," he said. "Safe distance, you say, 'Relax, I'm here to save you.'"

Zee and Mike gave the rescue mission another go using the boogie board.

"Having the boogie board was everything," she said. "It made it so much easier. I was calmer. It felt like I had distance between me and the person. That distance gave me confidence."

The second time, Mike made it out to the brick and back to the shore with the help of the boogie board.

"It was still tiring, but it was a lot easier," he said.

Because of the extreme fatigue Zee, Ryan and Mike experienced, the United States Lifesaving Association warns against regular folk attempting a rescue.

Instead, follow these recommended steps:

1. Alert a lifeguard and call 911.

2. If the victim is in a rip current, try yelling instructions for them to:

- Stay calm

- Float on their back and swim parallel to the shore, out of the current, never against it

- If you're close enough, throw them something that floats, like a boogie board, a pool noodle, a beach ball or even a cooler.

3. If all else fails, while it is not recommended, experts say if you do attempt a rescue, don't go without a flotation device.

"If you get out there with a flotation device, and you and the victim are both holding on and safe, there is no need to rush back to shore," Zee said. "If 911 has been called, a lifeguard is coming, the pros will come to get you. That way you don't exhaust yourself more, and you both remain safe."

There have been several drowning incidents already this year in the Chicago area.