Finding light in the darkness

St. Anne teacher and mother is on a mission to preserve Levi’s legacy as family grieves son’s death

Story by Bill Brewer
Photography by Kadee Fillers

It has taken for Nicole Hughes to get settled back into her routine at St. Anne Catholic School in Bristol.

Pardon her if she seems distracted.

While a new school year brings with it fresh beginnings, eager faces, and excitement, there is an inescapable absence the English teacher feels as she walks the halls among the elementary students, two of whom are her daughters.

Her youngest child, Levi, was to be starting pre-K next to her daughter, who is in kindergarten. She looked forward to being in the same building with her three children until they completed eighth grade at St. Anne and graduated to high school.

But those plans were tragically altered June 10 while the Hugheses were on a family vacation to Fort Morgan Beach in Alabama. In what Nicole Hughes described as a split second, 3-year-old Levi drowned in the pool of the beach house the Hughes family was sharing with the families of five close friends.

As the Hugheses try to come to terms with Levi’s death, the family has been leaning on its faith, and Levi’s mother is making it her personal mission to make all parents aware of water safety and the ever-present danger of drowning.

This mission is seeing profound results.

Levi’s death and Mrs. Hughes’ response to it are receiving international attention as she talks openly about the unlikely drowning and how it might have been prevented.

Contributing to Levi’s story is a similar tragedy that occurred on the same day he drowned. Olympic gold medalist snow skier Bode Miller and his wife, Morgan Beck, lost their 19-month-old daughter, Emeline Grier, to drowning in a pool near their Orange County, Calif., home.

Now, Nicole Hughes and Morgan Beck Miller have joined their efforts to raise awareness for water safety and drowning prevention, and the need for parents to always make sure their children are supervised around water.

Their stories have been told on television, in newspapers, and via social media across the United States and in other countries. National news outlets like CBS, NBC’s “Today Show,” Fox News, People Magazine, and Yahoo! News have reported the families’ stories. And Mrs. Hughes has launched a website,, to promote “Water Guardians,” a simple system of continual oversight of children around water where individuals alternate as the designated water guardian. The designated individuals wear a lanyard or tag identifying them as the water guardian. Each tag is the size of a credit card and can be personalized. The Water Guardians nonprofit program has been endorsed by the American Lifeguard Association.

“I am grateful, humbled, and honored to be part of this national platform. I have always believed in shared experiences, which is why I became a teacher. Part of this is now my story. I wish it wasn’t, but hopefully by sharing this it will help others,” Nicole Hughes said in response to a question, fighting back tears as she described Levi.

Mrs. Hughes still is in disbelief that her young son slipped through their considerable safeguards to quickly — and quietly — reach the swimming pool. She vividly recalls the instant he left her side to join his playmates on the couch to watch television after dinner. The 12 adults and 17 children were waiting until after dark to go crab hunting along the beach.

Levi and his dad, Dr. Jonathan Hughes, were wearing matching neon yellow T-shirts for the crab-hunting adventure.

Mrs. Hughes had just split a brownie with Levi as he scampered off toward the couch. But only moments later, she glimpsed over the balcony to make sure none of the children were by the pool when she saw Levi at the bottom of the deep end. As she screamed and darted toward the pool, a family friend jumped from the second-floor balcony into the pool. She then jumped in with the other half of the brownie still in her mouth and helped pull him out.

Her husband, a Bristol anesthesiologist, was joined by five other physician friends on the vacation trip in trying to resuscitate Levi, who was airlifted to Mobile Children’s Hospital. He never regained consciousness.

“I can’t wrap my head around my 3-year-old drowning,” Mrs. Hughes said, noting that she and her husband are vigilant in making sure their children are safe. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact he won’t be here five years from now.”

Water safety has always been at the forefront of their concerns, which also have included car-seat safety, front- and back-door safety, and even elevator safety (making sure the children never get on an elevator alone). In fact, Mrs. Hughes said every photograph of Levi on his last day showed him wearing a life preserver, even when he was flying a kite with his dad or sitting in a beach chair eating M&Ms.

The tragedy has been a test of faith for the Hugheses. Husband Jonathan has told Nicole and daughters Lily and Reese: “We are still a family.”

“I’m clinging to faith blindly. I’m hoping to come out on the other side of this with a stronger faith and belief that the universe is good. Sometimes that seems doubtful,” Mrs. Hughes said.

As she struggles with Levi’s death, Mrs. Hughes is frustrated by the lack of widely disseminated information on drowning and its casual acceptance as a killer of children and adults. Since June 10, she has learned that the leading cause of death, aside from congenital disorders, in children ages 1 to 4 is drowning.

“There is a disconnect between what people think drowning is and what drowning actually is. No one is talking about drowning, even though it happens frequently,” she noted.

It has been observed that young children tend to drown quickly and quietly, often slipping into the water and sinking without splashing or calling for help. Life preservers and flotation devices also can create a false sense of security in those who do not know how to swim. And young children can drown in less than a minute.

Mrs. Hughes has found welcome solace in her new friendship with Morgan Beck Miller, who also is speaking out about drowning prevention. They have appeared together in several media interviews, helping to strengthen a bond through the direst circumstance a mother can face. Mrs. Hughes said Mrs. Miller has been a “lifeline” to her.

“Speaking to a mother who has lost a child, you don’t need to explain it,” Mrs. Miller told NBC News in an interview with the grieving mothers. She said the conversation about water safety and drowning needs to be more intense. “It is 100 percent preventable. I guess you could say this is momma fuel, the momma fire to keep pushing this forward.”

“Two moms on a mission,” Mrs. Hughes added.

Mrs. Miller said their friendship, developed from grief, helps them move forward as they glean strength from each other. It also helps them care for their families and honor the children they lost.

“We are sisters on a level that I pray no other women need to find,” she said.

Over the summer, they appealed to the American Academy of Pediatrics to participate with them on a national drowning prevention project. The AAP said it welcomed the opportunity to work with the families on such a project.

Her family and spreading awareness about drowning prevention and water safety make up the light that keeps Mrs. Hughes going. She is heartened by the thought of Levi’s life and death having such a positive impact on others.

“This is what is going to make my faith stronger in the end,” she said, noting that an aunt who is Catholic with a strong faith tells her God will always send signs to show He cares. “I’m choosing to keep turning on the light even though it’s dark.”

And as she struggles to maintain the light amid darkness and overwhelming grief, Mrs. Hughes is comforted — even uplifted — by the positive responses to the family’s tragedy and their efforts to live through it. She said it has “been so beautiful to witness this goodness.” She is receiving an outpouring of support through messages from all over the world.

“The people around us, our family, friends, and strangers, are sustaining us. Every time I’m in this darkness, they keep providing us this light,” she said. “It is comforting that people are listening and heeding the advice and wanting to help. It’s been such a validation of the fact we all are connected and in this life together.

“My sister says I keep turning on the light. But I don’t want any of this. I just want to pick up my three children from school.”


“Water Guardians” promotes a simple system of continual oversight of children around water where individuals alternate as the designated water guardian. The designated individuals wear a lanyard or tag identifying them as the water guardian. Each tag is the size of a credit card and can be personalized. The Water Guardians nonprofit program has been endorsed by the American Lifeguard Association.

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