The Schoonovers’ Story

Robert Schoonover was working a shift with the Burleson Fire Department a few days before Thanksgiving in 2002. A call came in from the 911 dispatcher about a child who was having difficulty breathing. His station responded to the seemingly routine call. Little did he know that the call would end up changing his life.

Less than ten minutes before Robert’s station received the emergency call, another phone rang at Robert’s house. His wife Barbara answered. She chatted briefly with a relative, said she couldn’t really talk because she was watching her young son Austin, and hung up. Less than a minute had passed.

Going back into mommy mode, she glanced around the kitchen for her one-year-old who had just been there. Thinking he had followed other kids to a different part of the house, she searched the bedrooms, before finally noticing that the sliding glass door to the backyard, which had been closed and locked, was now cracked open.

The Schoonover’s had a deck built outside their backyard door that led directly to the edge of an above-ground pool. Since it was November, the pool had fallen into disuse. The water was green and about 40 degrees.

Running into the backyard, she quickly scanned the area. When she didn’t see her him, she knew instinctively where he was. Jumping into the frigid, filthy water, she searched frantically for her son. Though she couldn’t see far in through the murky water, she found his body at the bottom.

Austin had just learned to walk, and was a wonderfully active toddler. Seizing the moment of independence, this precocious child successfully unlocked and opened the back door. Before his mom had hung up the phone, he wandered unabated onto the deck, and fell into the pool.

As Robert sped unknowingly toward his house in the fire engine, more details came in over the radio. It was a pool drowning, and it was in his neighborhood. His mind jolted as it occurred to him that no one besides him owned a pool in his neighborhood.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It seemed unreal.”

The engine arrived at the house, and he ran to the backyard, finding Barbara performing CPR on Austin. His skin was blue, and he was unconscious.

Robert took over CPR from his wife, asking between each breath for details about what happened. The other firemen loaded up Austin and sped him off toward the hospital.

His condition was dire all the way into the emergency room. He hadn’t had a pulse for over 20 minutes. As they continued to struggle to stabilize him, Robert had to leave the room. The walls felt like they were closing in on him.

Then a child’s scream came from the room. He’d never heard a more miraculous sound. Austin awakened momentarily as they were putting in an IV. It was a positive sign, but he wasn’t out of the woods.

He remained unconscious for three days in the ICU. His parents never left his side. While at the hospital, Robert asked firemen from his station to tear down his pool. It was gone that same day.

Slowly, Austin regained consciousness. And because he responded so well to treatment, he was discharged the day before Thanksgiving. “That was the best Thanksgiving of my life!” Robert said.

Over time it became clear that Austin had no long-term ill effects from the near drowning. He made a full recovery. Robert credits his wife’s quick actions, aggressive CPR, and the cold water for limiting the trauma to Austin’s body, and ultimately saving his life.

But he knows they were immensely fortunate.

“The doctors told us he technically should be dead,” Robert said. “But it’s been ten years and he doesn’t even have any mental deficits. He’s extremely smart and active.”

As a fireman, Robert now channels this experience into a mission.

“In a way I’m glad this happened, because we learned how important it is to think proactively as parents when it comes to protecting your children,” he said. “This had a great outcome for me, because I still have my son. But a lot of people don’t get a second chance. You have to implement a secondary means of protection.”

Supervision is essential, but it’s going to break down, he said. No one can supervise their child constantly. What make a difference are the secondary barriers you put in place to protect your children when the inevitable lapse in supervision happens.

And Robert says it has to go further than just your house.

“What about your friend’s pool?” he said. “If you know what it takes to protect kids on their property, you can’t be scared to share it. I share my son’s story with everyone now, and ask them, ‘Are you doing anything to prevent this from happening to you?’ You can’t take safety for granted.”

Here are the steps Robert recommends to protect children around pools:

  • Have secondary barriers in place, like child-proof locks on doors, 4-sided pool fences, and pool alarms.
  • Parents should become CPR-certified, and take refreshers every year.
  • Be proactive about safety. Make sure your neighbors are aware of how to make their pools safe.