Nearly 200 people have drowned in Finland already this year
Typical victim is a middle-aged man with alcohol in his system
By Sami Takala, Katarina Baer in Berlin, Anna-Liina Kauhanen in Stockholm, and Jussi Niemeläinen in Moscow
"Man drowns in river in Heinola"; "Woman found drowned in Vuosaari"; Estonian man drowns in Kuusamo after losing oar overboard"; Child drowns on Espoo beach".
The headlines and the small articles in the newspaper have been stacking up this year.
On just one black weekend in mid-July, eleven people met their end by water, more even than in the traditionally high-attrition Midsummer holiday weekend.
Already a couple of hundred Finns have died by drowning in 2010 - either in accidents or as a means of committing suicide.
“The total for the past four months is somewhere between 160 and 170 victims”, says Accident Investigation Board researcher Kai Valonen.
The Accident Investigation Board launched a research project in April, the purpose of which is to go through all the deaths by drowning taking place in Finland in a period of one year. The project will last until March 2011.
By the end of last week, there had been 55 drowning deaths in Finland in the month of July alone, defined as cases where the body had been found in water.
The Finnish Association for Swimming Instruction and Life Saving (SUH) also keeps statistics on the drownings in the country.
SUH collects its information from newspaper articles. According to SUH, so far there have been 75 drowning cases in Finland this year. In 2009 the total figure for the entire year was 76.
The difference between the figures put out by SUH and the authorities is explained by the fact that the Accident Investigation Board receives its information from the police and lists all the deaths that take place in water.
For example, suicides are not included in SUH’s figures.
“Traditionally suicides by drowning have not been considered as ‘deaths by drowning’ per se, but we wanted to look into these cases as well”, says Accident Investigation Board Director Veli-Pekka Nurmi.
The Accident Investigation Board numbers may also include deaths resulting from a sudden and fatal attack of illness while in the water, explains National Bureau of Investigation Det. Sgt. Markku Tuominen, who is also taking part in the project.
The most important contributory factors to deaths by drowning are alcohol and the wrong attitude.
According to SUH, alcohol plays a role in as many as 80 per cent of the drowning cases. Most of the victims are middle-aged men.
“The brain is left at the door and people take to the water without the relevant equipment. People fail to check the condition of the vessel or that the life jackets are in order. And even if there are life jackets or vests onboard, people still fail to wear them”, explains SUH education analyst Malla Grönlund.
This year’s high figure for drowning victims has also been explained by the warm weather.
“Of course it is clear that the hot weather and warm lake- and sea-water temperatures have increased the number of swimmers and recreational boaters, thereby also pushing up the number of fatalities”, Tuominen says.
In Germany, three out of four of last year’s drowning victims were men.
In the country of 82 million inhabitants, 474 people lost their lives by drowning in 2009.
People are warned of the dangers of swimming under the influence, but a more common reason than alcohol for the drowning fatality figures is people’s inability to assess their strength and level of fitness correctly, reports the German Lifeguard Association DLGR.
More than half of the victims were over the age of 50.
In Sweden, 31 individuals lost their lives by drowning in June-July this year. The explanation is the same as in Finland: the hot weather increases the number of people taking to the water.
The Swedish Life Saving Society is campaigning visibly to alert people of the dangers of being out on the water and the necessity of knowing how to swim.
“Drowning does not look like drowning”, the society warns on its website.
"A drowning person does not wave his arms dramatically, as the drowning reflex does not allow the lifting of the arms. And a person who is drowning does not always cry for help either, as his system is concentrating on breathing."
“Children who play make a noise. If the children are quiet, go and check out what is going on.”
Russia, too, has struggled with a record heat wave this summer.
In June 1,244 people lost their lives by drowning. July’s figure is at least 1,044. At worst there were no less than 71 fatalities in just one day.
Still, even with figures as grisly as these, this year so far there have been fewer drownings than in 2009.
In one particularly shocking incident this summer, six children drowned while on summer camp by the Sea of Azov. The children who were allowed to enter the water were unable to fight the strong sea current.
On the beach there was no life-saving equipment, and according to the authorities some of the lifeguards on duty were drunk.
According to Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations, the great majority of this summer's drowning cases have been associated with alcohol. Where booze is not a factor, the issue has been one of people swimming in dangerous places.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke out about the situation on Russia's beaches a few weeks ago in Chelyabinsk in the Urals, when he noticed the inadequate safety equipment while out for a walk along the shoreline.
Despite the experiences of the summer, alcohol is not always the cause of drownings in Russia.
Last year 6,476 died in this manner, and according to the state news agency Ria Novosti, just over 1,900 of them were drunk. A good many die each spring in accidents while out fishing on the ice.
When observing fellow swimmers, one should pay attention to the following signs for an indication that the person may be in danger:
The head is very low in the water and the mouth is close to the surface, or the neck is extended backwards and the mouth is open.
A swimmer has a glazed or vacant look in his eyes.
Closed eyes may be another sign of trouble.
The hair is covering the face and the eyes.
The person’s body is in a vertical position in the water.
The breathing is fast or intermittent.
The person is attempting to swim but does not move forward.
The person tries to turn on his back.
The person is treading water.
The swimming loses its form and the person starts to scoop the water with his hands in a child-like manner.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.8.2010
JUSSI NIEMELÄINEN, SAMI TAKALA, KATARINA BAER AND ANNA-LIINA KAUHANEN / Helsingin Sanomat
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