IN FOCUS Discussion: Uptick in Utah drownings

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – As life returns to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic and the heat wave entices more people to the water, search and rescue crews are seeing an uptick in drownings. In Weber County where they’ve had two drownings and one near-drowning already, deputies said approximately 20,000 to 30,000 visitors are visiting and recreating in the Ogden Valley each weekend. Collectively this year, there’s been eight drownings in Utah with five occurring in just the last 12 days. Advocates worry that this number will only continue to go up, so they’re ramping up efforts and initiatives to raise awareness among the public and hopefully save lives.

Stephanie Cowles, sister of Priscilla Bienkowski, joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on the CW30 News at 7 p.m. for an IN FOCUS discussion. Bienkowski and her friend, Sophia Hernandez, drowned in Utah Lake back in May 2020, prompting an eight-day search by Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue and their partners. Investigators said the two young women went floating with pool toys when a storm came in with 50 mph winds. Both of them were not wearing life jackets. More than two months after their tragic passing, the families of both victims came together to spearhead efforts on getting lifejacket loaner stations installed at Utah Lake. Cowles shared an update of how the Utah Lake Commission’s Governing Board secured funding to place seven stations around the area.

Blake Jorgensen, volunteer for the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue, discussed how crews prepare for the uptick in water-related calls in the summer. Just last Friday, he and his team responded to a drowning at Spring Lake near Santaquin and recovered the body of a 19-year-old man. He shared what inspired him to become a volunteer, the extensive training they have to go through monthly, misconceptions the public may have about search and rescue, whether they’re concerned about the uptick in drownings this year, safety tips for the public, and what his message is to the family and friends of drowning victims.

According to the Utah Drowning Prevention Coalition (UDPC), there were 47 fatal drownings in 2020, which is 11 more than 2019. Out of that number, about 31% are children and 69% are adults. Most drownings typically happen during June, July, and August, making up 56% of drownings. Approximately 30% of drownings happen in open water and another 30% happen in pools. McKell Christensen, the public relations chair for UDPC, talked about their newly-formed organization, how her background in aquatics inspired her passion in water safety, the latest data on drownings in Utah, whether they’re concerned about a potential increase in drownings this year, and water safety tips for the public.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Cowles, Jorgensen, and Christensen, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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