Why Rescuers Die While Drowning Victims Survive

Illustration for article titled Why Rescuers Die While Drowning Victims Survive

There are many terrible examples of a person coming to the rescue of a drowning victim only to drown themselves. It's so common that there's a name for it — aquatic victim instead of rescuer syndrome, or AVIR syndrome. But there are many reasons rescuers can drown while many of the people they rescue survive.


Drowning victims, especially adults, can be dangerous. Someone who is panicking will instinctively clutch at anything and use it push themselves up. This means pushing their rescuer down, which is easy to do if the rescuer is tired, or if they've pinned their rescuer's arms. If you witness someone drowning, most emergency responders agree that what you need to do is look around for something buoyant before you even get in the water, get in a boat, or try to throw the drowning person something from shore. Swimming to someone who's drowning and trying to take hold of them is dangerous even for professionals. There's a reason why lifeguards carry those orange plastic buoys, and it's not their need to accessorize. Throwing a drowning person something to keep them afloat, so they don't hang on you, is essential.

But why do so many victims make it back to shore, when their rescuers die? One way to make sense of the situation is to look at the environmental factors that cause people to drown. Riptides are dangerous currents that drag people away from shore, but an oceanography professor has found out that riptides don't go only one way. Using GPS devices, he's tracked them, and found that they circulate, coming back towards land. The accepted wisdom on what to do if you're caught in a riptide is swim parallel to the shore to get away from the current, but professor Jamie MacMahan calculated that that gives you a good chance of being swept out to sea. Treading water for a three-and-a-half minutes yields a 90% chance of being brought back to shore.


Many rescuers aren't strong swimmers themselves, and keeping both themselves and a panicky second person afloat could exhaust them until they go under. By that time, the person they're rescuing is swept back to shore again.

Image: Vix B.

[Via Drowning for Love, Would-Be Rescuers are Losing Their Lives]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Lifeguard for Four Years.

Lifeguarding Instructor.

CPR for the Professional Rescuer instructor.

Water Safety instructor.

Life Guarding Merit Badge.


If you are not trained, DO NOT attempt a rescue. You will die too unless you follow the above.

There are four levels of swimmer in this sort of analysis:

Active Swimmer: Making good progress through the water, body horizontal good breath control.

Distressed Swimmer: progress slows, still has breath control, body position begins to dip from the horizontal. CAN STILL SHOUT FOR HELP.

Active Drowning: Body position nearly vertical, head back, no thrust from arm motion. All energy expended goes to keeping the head out of water. Arms move up and down at the sides (no typical "swimming stroke motion") NO BREATH CONTROL

Passive Drowning: unmoving floating or sitting on the bottom. Unconscious

Active drowning victims HAVE NO BREATH CONTROL, they are 100% focused on NOT DIEING. They are in what is called The INSTINCTIVE DROWNING RESPONSE. Meaning You float, they don't they will lunge, grab, and otherwise crawl on you to get out of the water. in life guarding classes they teach you to approach from the back, out of eye sight and grab people, or barring that, fix their attention and then dive around them and grab them.


Since they have no breath control, they also make very little noise. they cannot shout for help.

Why do people die trying to rescue people? No training, and years of exposure to practices that are down right false when it comes to life saving.