STURBRIDGE - When Derek Frechette took his two young boys to a town recreation program four summers ago, he made sure to bring their life jackets, which they had worn whenever they went swimming.
But as he was leaving, he recalled, a staff member told him children were not allowed to swim in life jackets at the lake.
It is an assertion the town disputes. But whatever the reason, 4-year-old Christian Frechette was not wearing a life jacket when he entered the water.
A few hours later, a police officer appeared at the Frechettes’ home. One of the boys had been in an accident, he said.
At the hospital, the doctor confirmed their worst fears. Christian had drowned, found in just 3 feet of water.
Driven by the death of his son, Derek Frechette is pushing for legislation, known as Christian’s Law, that would require state and town-run camps with a swimming area to have Coast Guard-approved flotation devices on hand for all minors.
“So no one else has to say ‘Why me?’ ’’ Frechette said. “This is preventable.’’
The legislation is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “Considering what kind of impact it would have, I think it’s a logical effort,’’ said Stephen Brewer, the state senator sponsoring the bill.
Brewer, whose brother also drowned at the age of 4, said the prevalence of child drownings, and their “searing impact’’ on families, justifies the expense.
Frechette said he has devoted long hours to the cause, and said it has given him renewed purpose that eases a measure of his grief.
“There’s still a hole,’’ he said. “But I am trying to make his death mean something. All I want is to know that my son didn’t die in vain.’’
After Christian died, Frechette was inconsolable. He drank heavily, and lost interest in work. As grief gnawed at him, he become more isolated, pushing away even his closest friends. He often dreamed that Christian was calling to him from the water.
Time didn’t seem to help. He lost his job in 2008, and increasingly turned to drinking as a way to escape his troubles. His marriage strained under the pressure, and twice he moved out of the house.
“You wind up blaming each other,’’ Frechette said.
But he and his wife, Tina, worked things through and had two more children. Eight months ago, Frechette gave up drinking.
“I saw the way my son [10-year-old Cameron] looked at me,’’ he said. “I decided that was enough.’’
Frechette regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and has renewed his relationship with God after years of bitterness over Christian’s death. He is doing more work as an engineering consultant and has stepped up his efforts to pass the law. He said he has worked with water safety groups such as Safe Kids USA to provide life jackets to local camps, publicized the bill through social media and his foundation’s website, and recently shared his story in an article for Water Safety Magazine called “Preventable Pain.’’
“No more self-pity, I guess,’’ he said.
How Christian drowned remains a mystery. Some of the other children in the program were having lunch in a picnic area near the lake when he went missing, but staffers quickly started looking for him. They first looked in the woods, but then a child told a lifeguard she had felt something on her foot when she was in the water. His body was found near a dock that extended past the designated swimming area.
The Frechettes have thought about the possibilities countless times. Maybe Christian was pushed, or maybe he lost his balance on the narrow walkway. But over time, they have stopped searching for answers.
“We’ll never know what happened,’’ Tina Frechette said.
Christian had spent lots of time in the water, but always wore a life jacket, they said.
The state’s recreation department declined to take a position on the plan, but said anyone may wear Coast Guard-approved flotation devices at its waterfronts.
Lynne Girouard, the recreation coordinator in Sturbridge, said that while children can wear life jackets at the lake, she doesn’t believe they are appropriate for shallow water.
“A life jacket isn’t for swimming,’’ she said. “A life jacket is for boating.’’
But the Red Cross, which runs the campaign “Life Jackets Aren’t Just for Boats,’’ said young children and inexperienced swimmers should wear life jackets in the water, even in swimming pools.
“Unfortunately, many people think water wings replace life jackets, but that’s very far from the truth,’’ said Don Lauritzen, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. “They provide a false sense of security.’’
In the Frechettes’ home, Cameron sleeps in a room he used to share with his younger brother. He still cries over him, though less than he used to. “When he sees two brothers together,’’ said Tina Frechette, “it makes him remember what he had.’’
The home is filled with pictures of Christian, and his bike still hangs in the garage. His urn rests on the mantle. On his birthday, the family goes to the preschool he attended and releases balloons. The children think they will make it to heaven.
“That’s what they think balloons are for,’’ Tina said.
The playground at the school was built in Christian’s memory. A dedication says it was the “result of the love brought to this world by a little boy who was taken away too soon.’’
At the lake where Christian drowned, the dock is gone, and a life jacket station has been built. On a recent visit, Derek Frechette stood on the beach, watching the sunlight shimmer on the water. He took a large gulp of crisp fall air, then sighed.
“Why?’’ he asked. “It’s hard to understand why.’’