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'Nobody knew how long she’d been under:' Dad talks lessons learned after daughter's near-drowning

Five years after his daughter's near-drowning, Tony Birrittieri hopes his story will save someone's life this summer.

FLOWER MOUND, Texas — Tony Birrittieri had strict instructions for the company that built his backyard pool.

“I want to make this pool as safe as possible,” said Tony, when he thinks about what he told the construction crews building his pool. “I never want to walk outside and see my kid floating at the bottom of the pool. And that phrase comes back to haunt me a lot, because it’s what happened.”

It's been five years, but that hot August day is one Tony will never forget. 

Tony and his wife, Lori Johnson, had friends over to swim in their backyard pool at their Flower Mound home. 

Tony was standing at the edge of the pool talking to one of his daughters. Jessica, then 3 years old, had taken off her floaties and gone inside to go to the bathroom. Excited to get back in the pool, Jessica managed to quietly run past all the adults – and jump back in.

“I’m standing right by the pool. Looking into the pool. And I still didn’t see her jump in,” said Tony. “It wasn’t until a little bit later, and nobody knows how long it was, that my oldest son popped up from the water and yelled, ‘Jessica’s at the bottom! She’s dead!’”

Tony jumped in and grabbed Jessica. Lori started CPR.

“Nobody knew how long she’d been under [the water],” said Tony.

Jessica was airlifted to the hospital. She was in a coma, and after five days, she finally woke up.

“I remember whenever I took my first breath, I heard a little bit of noise. I didn’t hear much,” said Jessica, now 8 years old.

“Five years later, she’s fine,” said Tony. “She’s just a normal 8-year-old.”

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Children’s Health treated eight patients for drowning-related incidents. Thankfully, none of them were fatal. But six of them happened in a backyard pool.

“I’m always just skimming the surface, thinking if somebody’s in trouble, they’ll be flailing their arms and screaming for help, and that’s not how it works,” said Tony. “They go in and they go down and you don’t hear from them again.

Today, Tony and his wife make sure someone is always watching the bottom of the pool when the kids are playing in it. They've even hired lifeguards for some of their parties. 

"We thought we were doing everything right by getting the net [to cover the pool], and we didn’t realize that there was so much more to it. There’s so much more to pool safety than just covering the pool when not in use. It’s being alert when it is in use because that’s when a lot of the accidents happen."

Meanwhile, Jessica is now a competitive swimmer.

“Even though I’m a good swimmer, I should be more careful around water,” said Jessica. “I’m not scared, but I just know I have to be careful.”

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