Tragic water death spurs awareness campaign

Condition can strike swimmers in shallow water

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking in front of Mallets Bay, declares June Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month. Dean and Sandy Haller, parents of Benjo Haller, look on. PHOTO | COLIN FLANDER

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking in front of Mallets Bay, declares June Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month. Dean and Sandy Haller, parents of Benjo Haller, look on.
PHOTO | COLIN FLANDER

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By COLIN FLANDERS
The Colchester Sun

A brisk wind washed over Bayside Park on Wednesday as boats bobbed atop the rippling Malletts Bay waters — a fitting backdrop for Gov. Peter Shumlin as he declared June to be Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month.

The Live Like Benjo Foundation — an organization dedicated to the memory of Benjamin C. Haller, a 27-year-old who drowned in seven feet of water last year — hosted the ceremony.

Haller was a familiar figure in Mallets Bay. After enrolling in sailing lessons at the International Sailing Center in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, he would go on to work at the center every summer thereafter.

Haller became close friends with Robin Doyle, the center’s owner, who would eventually serve as his mentor and racing companion.

During 2013 and 2014, Haller sailed his boat, “Momma Dance,” from Malletts Bay to Harbour Island in the Bahamas. After a day of spearfishing on Aug. 1, he returned to the water to practice holding his breath to dive and fish for longer periods of time.

That night, Haller died from a condition called shallow water blackout.

Shallow water blackout is an underwater faint trigged by a lack of oxygen to the brain. Simply holding one’s breath and going underwater, however, does not cause the condition.

Shallow water blackout occurs when a swimmer’s carbon dioxide levels drop due to intentional hyperventilation or physical exertion such as intense swimming. Due to the already low carbon dioxide levels, the brain fails to alert the swimmer to surface, the body loses consciousness and without immediate intervention, the victim will quickly drown.

Dean Haller, president of the foundation and Benjamin’s father, has since made it his mission to spread awareness of the danger shallow water blackout poses.

“Everyone is at risk.  There is a perception that only elite swimmers and free divers succumb to shallow water blackout.  It’s simply not true,” Haller said in a press release. “Kids and adults are all at risk. Even kids who have been running around and playing can drop their carbon dioxide level enough to pass out during brief dives.”

Proper supervision is key in preventing such tragedies, according to the foundation. Lifeguards and aquatics professionals must recognize the signs of the condition, while parents are encouraged to teach their children to avoid breath-holding games and competitions.

Over the last five years, nearly 20 people have drowned in Vermont, according to Betsy Terry, executive director of Vermont Recreation and Parks Association. Other speakers included Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health and Mary Burns, CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA.

Shumlin said that June is the “ideal month for this designation as the summer swimming season begins throughout our great state.”

He went on to speak briefly of the Live Like Benjo Foundation, stating they are “committed to working with Vermont State agencies, schools, and all swimming facilities wand swimmers to raise awareness about the causes of shallow water blackout.”

The foundation, which refers to Malletts Bay as its unofficial home, described its three-part mission: increasing awareness of shallow water blackout, ending deaths related to the condition and supporting sailing instruction for Vermont youth “who would not otherwise get the opportunity to love sailing the way Benjo did,” Haller said.

The last distinction is an important one, for the foundation wishes to make clear their intention is not to keep people out of the water, Haller said. He went on to highlight six scholarships the foundation aims to provide in honor of Benjamin.

“Benjo loved the water. Our mission includes getting more people on the water.  It’s about doing it safely through awareness, training and proper supervision,” Haller said.