City, private partners grapple with cultural swim safety problems

By KEN CHRISTENSEN & TRISTAN HALLMAN

On a warm summer night, Crystal Reyes and a group of five friends decided they would cool off the next day by taking a dip in the tree-lined Bronx River Park.

“We didn’t necessarily know where a pool was, and the river was way cooler,” said Reyes’ then-boyfriend Aaron Ortiz, who was 16 at the time. “And the pools around there, they’re not usually open.”

Edwin Cruz (right), 53, takes a break at the Bronx River with a friend where Crystal Reyes and David Luccioni drowned two years ago. Cruz almost drowned at this very spot when he was 15, when there weren't fences to deter children from swimming. He tried to stand on one of the slippery rocks below the water's surface and went under. The current looks mild, he said, but it kept pulling him down. Now a resident of Hunts Point, Cruz said children often swim downriver at Riverside Park, where they often jump off a floating dock into the deep water. Photo by Ken Christensen.

Headlines read that a heat wave was rolling through. The temperature reached about 94 degrees when the friends arrived at the park. Among them were Reyes — who had been dating Ortiz for a year — and one of the Ortiz’s close friends, David Luccioni III. Ortiz and Luccioni planned to go into law enforcement together. David would become a cop, and Ortiz would become a detective.

Nondescript red metal signs, tied ten or so feet off the ground, indicate that swimming in that part of the river is forbidden. But before the river flows down a man-made concrete waterfall to a shallow, rocky area below, it is calm and deep enough to swim in. Here at this tranquil spot, the bottom isn’t visible like it is below the waterfall.

Reyes and her friends hopped the short wrought-iron fence that blocked their way. They descended the rock wall with convenient footholds to a flat concrete slab where canoes dock after a trip downriver.

Other teens were already swimming in the river, Ortiz said. The group plunged into the cool water. The girls were in swimsuits and the boys mostly wore clothes.

About 20 minutes after the teens went in, Ortiz accidentally drifted away from the others. He felt something pulling at his foot. He tried to shake out of it. There was more pulling. He knew how to swim a little bit, but he couldn’t get free. He kept going under.

“I was scared,” Ortiz said. “I didn’t want this to happen.”

Seeing his panic, Luccioni III swam toward him. So did Crystal Reyes, Ortiz’s sister Jazzmin, 11, and David’s brother. Luccioni, who was wearing hiking boots, went under water and pushed Ortiz up so he could get enough air to swim to safety.

Then Reyes and Jazzmin Ortiz began to drown too. Luccioni went for Jazzmin, and dove under her to push her up to get air too. That left Reyes, who was flailing around, panicking. An experienced swimmer could possibly escape. Reyes wasn’t. In her distress, she pulled Luccioni under too. Neither would come back up.

The others who were in the water waded out to look for the two. Maybe one of them could dive in there and rescue them. But they couldn’t see Reyes or Luccioni.

All Ortiz could do was wait for help to arrive.

He said it took 12 minutes for the police to arrive on the scene, and another eight minutes or so after that for the paramedics to get there.

“I just wanted them to hurry up and come so they could save her, and him,” he said. “But since they were underwater that long, I was thinking they would probably end up with brain damage even if they were saved.”

When the EMTs arrived, they recovered Reyes and then Luccioni from the bottom of the river and took them to St. Barnabas Hospital 15 blocks away. They were pronounced dead on arrival.

Reyes was about a week away from her 15th birthday.

Luccioni and Reyes were two of 21 people in New York City reported to have accidentally drowned in 2010 – it could not be determined whether seven additional deaths were accidental – according to the city’s latest figures. Studies have shown that minorities like Reyes, who is Puerto Rican by ethnicity, are three times more likely to drown than whites. New York is currently making efforts to increase recreation in its waterways by opening up 20 miles of waterfront park space. But the city and its private partners are waging an uphill battle to bring swim safety to black and Hispanic communities where — for economic, historical and cultural reasons — many people don’t know how to swim.

“Drowning is a public health problem,” said Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana at Missoula who wrote a history of swimming pools in the U.S. and New York in his 2007 book “Contested Waters.”

It’s a public health problem that is most pronounced among minorities. Nationwide, black children between the ages of 5 and 14 are three times as likely to drown than are white children in the same age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A study by USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming, showed that Hispanic children were almost twice as likely to not know how to swim as white children.

The reason for the disparity is that swimming became a culturally white activity due to racial segregation, Wiltse said. The two waves of popularity of pools — municipal pools in the 1920s and private pools in the 1960s-70s — both left minorities on the sidelines, he said.

During these periods, blacks were often excluded outright from pools in small towns and cities with Southern heritage, Wiltse said. In cities like New York, segregation resembled Jim Crow laws. Minorities could access pools in their neighborhoods freely, but were harassed at pools in white neighborhoods. Wiltse said New York City was late to provide municipal pools and left many in disrepair for years. That was especially the case in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

As a result, many people grew up without ever learning to swim and then had children, Wiltse said. The fear and lack of swim safety was passed down among generations, he said. The built-in cultural fears are major hurdles to teaching kids to swim, said Dwayne Lindo, the aquatics director of the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club.

“Most of the kids I talked to, they get a fear from their parents because their parents never learned to swim,” Lindo said. “They tell them, ‘Don’t go in the water. Don’t go in the deep end,’ and they pass that fear on to their own children.”

Sharlene Brown, the director of the Bronx YMCA, said that’s also true at her organization and in her own life. Brown said that when she was growing up, her mom was so terrified of the water that she didn’t let her children learn to swim.

“My mom almost drowned when she was young. I couldn’t even get her into a tub,” Brown said. “She would panic.”

When Brown was 29, she decided that it was time to overcome her fear. She took swimming lessons at the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA, where she worked before she came to the Bronx.

Brown said that more and more adults are taking swim lessons now too.

Christine Aleman, the Bronx YMCA aquatics director, said that her mom was also terrified of swimming. The 28-year-old Hunts Point-native said she didn’t learn how to swim until her mom found a free-swimming program that was offered nearby when Aleman was 16. Aleman said her family wasn’t able to afford swim lessons before that, and the free program gave them an opportunity.

Brown and Aleman learning swimming at a later age is uncommon. The best and most common age for people to learn to swim is about ages 6 or 7 — if not younger — said Sue Anderson, a director of diversity at USA Swimming. Children who are about 6 have not fully developed a fear of the water, she said, and they don’t have as many body issues with being in swimsuits around other boys and girls.

The YMCA and Asphalt Green have both partnered with some of the city’s public schools to teach second-graders to swim. And the city’s Parks and Recreation Department is currently holding a swim lesson program for the city’s children and adults.

The efforts fit one of the tenets of the city’s Vision 2020 waterfront plan, which places a heavy emphasis on an increase in water recreation: to “encourage growth of programs for water-related education for youth and schools, including swimming classes.”

Asphalt Green, the YMCA and Parks and Recreation are trying to teach thousands of children to swim. But their reach falls far short of their goals of teaching all of the roughly 70,000 second-graders in public schools in New York.

Carol Tweedy, the executive director of Asphalt Green, said that there still aren’t enough pools in the city to teach every second-grader to swim. There need to be more pools in schools, she said.

Wiltse said New Yorkers are better off than a lot of people across the country in the number of pools available to them. But that’s not to say there are enough pools. The nation as a whole has a municipal pool shortage, he said.

“You could make a strong argument that in a city of about 8 million people, the number of public swimming facilities is woefully inadequate,” Wiltse said. “If they are going to plunge in the water in the summer, and if they’re not provided facilities like swimming pools, they are going to jump in rivers and lakes, which are much more dangerous.”

That’s what happens in the Bronx River, said John Decolator, a Bronx attorney who represents the Reyes and Luccioni families in a lawsuit against the city for negligence.

“Apparently, the kids go there a lot because there are so few public swimming pools in the area,” Decolator said.

Decolator and his law partner Stephen B. Kaufman said that paramedics were often called to the spot in Bronx River Park to help children who had almost drowned even before Reyes and Luccioni died.

The city has denied that there were not enough pools available.

But locals say the problem still persists. On a hot day, kids will go in the natural water to cool off.

“The problem is, most of the kids who jump in there can’t swim,” said Richie Torres, who regularly hangs out at the park with his fishing buddies. “It was sad, man. But people still go in there.”

Anderson said many children who can’t swim still think that they can simply because it looks easy when other people do it.

“They think, ‘Oh I can do that,’ and they don’t know how hard it is,” Anderson said.

What children often don’t realize is that swimming requires the swimmer to be relaxed, Anderson said. Panicking or tenseness will cause safety problems, she said. Like it did for Reyes.

Ortiz said they had been swimming in the river before that day. Lots of children and teens had. The gate and the stone pathway are the only things standing between the still water and the playground just a few yards away.

Ortiz walks by the park from time to time, but hasn’t been inside since. And he doesn’t want to. Not after what happened.

“We should have never gone there,” he said.

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