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Mother of drowned boy warns parents: Never assume child is being watched

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. -

The pinwheel John Michael's grandfather gave him is still here. So is the backyard pool.

But the little boy who had just turned 3 has been gone for four years now. His mom, Stephanie McConnell says, “Everyone who came into contact with him, he lit up their world. The biggest, bluest eyes."

Stephanie McConnell is still struggling to come to terms with what happened here at her parents’ Gainesville home on April 30th, 2010. The mother of five says, “My biggest thing was forgiving myself. Because as a mother, Mommy fixes everything. Mommy protects her kids. And on that day, Mom couldn't make it better."

It was a Friday evening. John Michael and his twin sister Koraleigh were in the front yard with Stephanie's three teenage sons and their girlfriends. They’d brought the TV outside to the picnic table and were cooking out. Stephanie says, “We were just going to have a movie under the stars, I guess you could say."

Stephanie, at home next door, says she could hear the twins laughing. The yard was crowded, she says, so she thought John Michael and Koraleigh were being watched. Now, she says, “Had I known, I would have never have assumed, never have assumed."

Because John Michael slipped behind his grandparents’ house, and through the closed, but unlocked gate into the fenced pool area. Stephanie says, “The next thing I know, my adopted son was yelling, "Momma, Brother is in the pool." At first, she says, “I was angry because I kept thinking, "The teenagers have left the gate open! And he's just inside the fence. He's just inside the fence."

John Michael wasn't just inside the fence. He was floating, lifeless, in the deep end.

He'd stood outside the fence a dozen times, watching his grandfather clean the pool with this net, asking if he could help.

Stephanie says, “They found the pool net in the pool with him. And this was his attempt to help his Papa, because he didn't realize the dangers of the water.”

The McConnells think John Michael fell in, quickly and quietly. Stephanie says, "I tried and I tried and I tried with CPR to revive him and I couldn't." John Michael was airlifted to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where he died four days later. Stephanie says, "I knew that he wasn't going to wake up, so we decided to remove the life support, and then I held him the last few hours of his life."

Stephanie says that's the reality of drowning. No one is immune. Children can, and do, slip away.

And it can happen so quickly. She says, “I go out and I watch people around the pool, and around the beach, and you'll see them looking down at their book, or at their phone. Just anything, because they think, "My child is only 5 feet away from, they're safe. I will hear them if they get into trouble." But guess what, they can slip under that water and not make a sound. And before they look up from that phone, before they look up from that book, before they open their eyes, from sunbathing, their child can be gone."

That's why Stephanie wants to share John Michael's story. She says, “If I can tell his story, if one parent can listen to it and say, "You know what, I need to pay a little closer attention to my child, because it can happen to me." Then he won't have died in vain. Because no parent should have to know the heartache.”

Stephanie McConnell recently wrote about losing John Michael in a Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta blog.

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