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Dad warns about mermaid tail swimsuits after daughter nearly drowns

The 5-year-old had been playing and splashing in a kiddie pool with her older sister, 7.
Annabelle Lisberg almost drowned while wearing a mermaid tail swimsuit and playing in a kiddie pool with her older sister, Ruby.
Annabelle Lisberg almost drowned while wearing a mermaid tail swimsuit and playing in a kiddie pool with her older sister, Ruby.adamlisberg/Twitter
/ Source: TODAY

After a scary near-drowning incident, one New Jersey father is trying to warn other parents about the risks posed by mermaid tail swimsuits, a popular design that binds the legs and may put children at risk.

Adam Lisberg said that on June 28, 2020, his two daughters, Annabelle, 5, and Ruby, 7, were swimming in a small kiddie pool while wearing the popular accessory.

"The girls love mermaids — always have," Lisberg told TODAY Parents, adding that the girls owned similar swimsuits in the past and had worn them so many times that they fell apart. "We knew that with it blocking their feet it’s harder to kick or walk — and they knew that — but we figured (the pool) is two feet deep. Even if they sit down they can get themselves up."

Aware of the potential for drowning even in shallow water, Lisberg said that he or his wife regularly supervise the girls while they are splashing around. On this particular day, though, his 5-year-old son Ben decided he wanted to make guacamole — but only mentioned it to his parents after he had begun smashing avocados.

"Every parent knows you have to watch every kid like a hawk, and you have to be careful all the time, but I thought, 'I have two girls in the pool keeping an eye on each other, right below the kitchen with the window open so I can hear them. Meanwhile, I have a son who's about to squish avocados all over the kitchen,'" Lisberg explained. "I figured it was safe to go up and make guacamole with him while looking out the window."

Lisberg said there was even a false alarm that he responded to immediately — he heard the girls making crying noises so he raced outside, only to find out they were playing a game together. A few minutes later, 7-year-old Ruby came inside and said that Annabelle wasn't moving.

"I’m thinking, ‘This is not how it’s supposed to end. It’s a wonderful, happy Sunday afternoon, the girls are having so much fun in the pool, it’s not supposed to end like this,’" Lisberg said. "But when I got over to her, her eyes were wide, she wasn’t moving, and at first I really thought she was dead."

Lisberg said that Ruby was lying on her side with her arms inside the mermaid tail. She wasn't breathing, but she began to respond after Lisberg performed rudimentary CPR on her. Paramedics and police arrived quickly and took Annabelle to the hospital, where she stayed for two days.

"Ruby explained that Annabelle had been under the water and she saw her there and was trying to talk to Annabelle, but she wasn’t responding," Lisberg said. "She got her sister completely out of the water. It was incredible.

"I wish she had shouted something, but her first instinct was to protect her sister and she did."

Once Annabelle was able to describe what had happened to her, she told her dad she was "playing potato" when she pulled her arms inside the suit.

"She pulled it up to her shoulders and ended up under the water," Lisberg said. "She tried to reach for the part she could pull off, but couldn’t move her hands and bubbles came out when she tried to talk. I think that put her into shock — she just realized that she couldn’t do anything."

Dr. Suzette Oyeku, chief of the Division of Academic General Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, New York, agreed with Lisberg that the suits can be dangerous.

"If (a toy or swimsuit) constrains their legs or arms and they are not able to float, then that can be a safety hazard for them," she said. "Any kind of device going into the pool that will obstruct a child's ability to wade through the water is not advisable. ... (The swimsuits) are definitely cute, but it constrains their ability to move and can cause drowning."

Lisberg said he and his wife have both felt "terribly guilty" that they weren't "literally watching the girls in the pool every single second."

"We thought we were doing the very best we could, but that one terrible moment, when things can go wrong, happened," he said. "Fortunately our older daughter was a hero."

Lisberg urged parents to avoid purchasing the mermaid tail swimsuits, no matter how much children may want them.

"I'm hoping that the parents who see this are scared ... I want people to know that these mermaid tail swimsuits can kill," he said. "They're adorable, they're cute, kids want them, our kids had one like that for years and everything was fine, but I never expected she'd pull it up over her arms. Anyone who has a mermaid tail swimsuit ... should never get near water."

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This story was originally published on July 2, 2020.