Dietz family will host pool safety gathering May 18 in New Paltz

Anne (Dietz) Benedetto with her daughters three year-old Abigail and six year-old Emma. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

One of our bravest acts is to love – to truly love something, because in an instant it could be gone.

So, what do we do? We try to nurture, protect, guard against all that could harm our vulnerable loved ones. And still, those cracks appear: those slivers in time that stay with you forever, where something you cherished beyond life itself suddenly slips through and you try to push the walls of time back, like some superhero trying to shore up a city from an impending earthquake. But we are not superheroes and we are not immortal. We are just people doing the best we can to love our children and keep them safe.

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One of these crevices appeared on July 1 of last year, when the Dietz family was having an impromptu summer get-together at their brother Billy’s house off Springtown Road in New Paltz. “We had a birthday party for one of the kids the day before, and there was still a lot of food and it was a hot day, so a bunch of the family gathered again at Billy’s house by the pool,” remembered Ellen Dietz, one of seven adult Dietz siblings.

A hot day in July. A pool. Leftover food. Kids swimming and jumping and squealing. Siblings and sisters-in-laws and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews and grandmothers just shooting the breeze. Anne Benedetto, also a Dietz sibling, was treading water in the pool catching her son Andrew as he leaped off the small diving board. Off to the side was his twin, three-year-old Abigail, who was cautious around water, preferring to stand back and play on the deck. But something must have caught her eye. Maybe she was reaching for a float in the water, or looking at her reflection, or inching a little too close – and she just slipped underneath the water without notice. Her cousins continued to play and splash, and the adults were all right there, but no one saw her fall to the bottom.

It was her sister, six-year-old Emma, who noticed Abigail’s pigtails at the bottom of the pool and, without prompting or hesitation, instinctively dove to the bottom and dragged her sister up by her feet. Suddenly everything went silent. The air tightened; shadows froze. Abigail was not breathing. She was grey. Ann, a pediatric nurse, ran to her daughter and started doing CPR. She just kept pressing and pressing and checking her airway and pulse and pressing again. “I still don’t know how I did it,” she said. “One part of me went into automatic pilot, but another part of me was terrorized. I kept thinking that Andrew would not have a twin to grow up with — that something was terribly wrong and someone had to fix it and fix it now, because this couldn’t be happening.”

After almost five minutes of CPR by her own mother, Abigail choked and coughed up water. Although the relief of seeing life come back into her baby’s body was a wave of relief, they knew they were so not out of the woods, as they didn’t know how long she’d been under the water, if there was any brain damage.

Abigail is almost four now, and healthy and happy, and Emma is slated to receive the Ulster County Sheriff’s Award for saving her sister’s life. Her mother Anne will receive one, too. But for the Dietz family, seeing Abigail go from pale and lifeless and having drowned to smiling and talking and running around the backyard with her twin brother is the only reminder that they need as to how fortunate they were.

“If my daughter had not known CPR, or Emma hadn’t have seen her, I can’t imagine. I just can’t imagine,” said Donna Dietz, grandmother to 20, who is still traumatized by that day. “It was a miracle, an absolute miracle, and we just want to make sure that what happened to us does not happen to anyone else.”

To that end, the Dietz family, so grateful for this outcome, for Anne and Ellen’s ability to perform CPR and the lessons they had to learn about water and pool safety the hard way, want to pass it forward to the community that they love so dear. On May 18, the Dietz family will host their first formal annual community get-together, to which everyone is invited, at their Meadow property along the Wallkill River at 440 Springtown Road. They will have the Rescue Squad there to offer free, easy CPR courses, so that anyone can learn how to save a life.

The Woodcrest Community of Rifton will be there to serve hot dogs and hamburgers and lunch for free. Several of the Dietz sisters will be baking cookies and treats for friends, neighbors and community members. Peter Bowers, owner of PDQ in New Paltz, generously offered to make up and provide laminated lifeguard lanyards with whistles and a checklist for how to host a pool party or get-together safely.

“That’s what we learned from Charlene Mitchell [a head guard at the Moriello Pool in New Paltz] last year after the incident,” said Donna. “She explained that a great system was to designate one person every half-hour to be the lifeguard, and they do not talk to anyone, they don’t eat or drink; they just watch the pool. When their turn is up, they pass of the lifeguard lanyard and whistle to the next person. That way there is always someone watching the pool.”

At the May 18 event, there will be staff from the Moriello Pool on hand to discuss simple ways of ensuring safety for people with children around pools – particularly private pools, as drowning is the second leading cause of death in children 18 and under, and even higher in children one to seven years of age.

“We learned a lot,” said Ellen. “Not only is it important to have one person designated to watch the pool, but it’s also dangerous for these kids to have swimmies on” – the inflatable armbands that allow children to float who cannot swim – “or the masks that cover their noses.” The flotation devices give parents or guardians a false sense of security when really they are often cheaply made, can pop and deflate, or the child could fall forward with his or her face underwater and no ability to get up, as the floats keep them from fully using their arms. “You either need to be in the water with them, or have them in there with a certified instructor, or they shouldn’t be in the pool,” said Don Dennis, a lifeguard instructor from the Rochester area.

“The average person isn’t aware of this, just as we were not aware of this,” said Ellen. “So, we want to make this an event that can help educate people just like us in our community. If we can teach some people basic CPR, or get them to use this lifeguard system, and it saves one life at some point, then it is worth its weight in gold.”

Donna concurred. “We went down to Virginia Beach after that incident, like we do every year with our family, and we were changed people,” she said. “We had those lifeguard signs made up, and every time we were near a pool or ocean, we made sure that there was at least one adult focused on the kids in the water. That was their job. It can happen so quick – so quick. I still can’t believe it. I always help with the social on Sundays at St. Joseph’s Church, and wasn’t planning to go over to Billy’s because I wanted to get home and wash my tablecloths and clean up, but that Sunday I decided to stop by. I can still see it all…” she said, getting choked up. 

“There are times when I close my eyes and it all comes right back, and it’s horrifying,” said Anne. “But then I look at Abigail and just catch a smile or a giggle from her, and no matter how hard my day was, or how dirty the house is, or some other thing I’m upset about, I remind myself that it’s just not important. She’s what’s important.”

Ellen, having worked as a paramedic for years, explained that, “because so many people were afraid of doing mouth-to-mouth to help revive someone, the American Heart Association got together, and it is not longer required for you to put your mouth on anyone! No one has that to fear. You just need to learn the basic compression techniques; and what it boils down to is to just keep pressing and keep the blood flowing. If you can keep the heart pumping with your hands, you have a chance. And that’s what we all had: We had a chance with Abigail.”

Everyone and anyone is encouraged to come out to The Meadow on 440 Springtown Road in New Paltz on May 18, enjoy some lunch, listen in on some basic CPR demonstrations, get a free “Lifeguard on Duty” lanyard and whistle, listen in on some lifesaving pool tips for people with children and just see familiar faces or let the kids run around and make some friends. It will run from 12 noon to 4 p.m.

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