Twins' Family Left in 'an Infinite Well of Sorrow'

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

Jacob was older by a minute, but Joshua was the bigger one, the one who stopped nursing first and who walked before his brother took his first unsteady steps.

So when the 15-month-old twins lay in the same hospital room, taken off life support a day after they were found unconscious in a water-filled bathtub in their Stafford County home, Joshua, as was characteristic, held on for an hour and a half longer.

"He was always the stronger of the two," said the boys' father, Paul Ashton, fighting back tears.

Stafford authorities last week ruled the twins' deaths accidental and said no charges will be filed in the Oct. 25 incident. Still, even as the investigative spotlight dims, the family finds itself standing amid the horror that thousands of families face nationwide each year: a child's momentary misstep, followed by an accident and then unimaginable repercussions.

Accidental injuries are the leading cause of death nationwide for children 14 and younger, and drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional deaths among children ages 1 to 4, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization based in the District. Each year, unintentional drownings kill more than 830 children younger than 14 and cause, on average, 3,600 injuries, according to the group.

"Drowning, in particular, is a risk area that is very scary because it's a silent killer. Children don't make a lot of noise, and they aren't slapping the water like you see in the movies," said Chrissy Cianflone, home safety manager for the group. "It isn't until there is too much silence that a parent realizes something is wrong."

In Virginia, unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for 1- to 6-year-olds, and drowning is the third-leading cause of unintentional injury among that age group, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Across the state in 2006, the latest year for which data are available, 13 children younger than 14 drowned, with more than half of those deaths among children ages 1 to 4.

The twins' high chairs have been put away in the Ashton home near Garrisonville, but every other reminder of Jacob and Joshua remains: their toys, their clothes, the cribs that had to be placed head to head because the boys slept better when they were close.

"In 15 months, they were probably apart for 12 hours," Paul Ashton, 33, said. "It was always fun to watch them interact."

When Joshua started playing with cars, scooting them across the ground and making revving noises, it was no surprise that Jacob would do the same soon after.

Both boys loved "Blue's Clues" and balls and splashing the water during bath time. "They'd kick their feet and squeal and laugh and jump around," Paul Ashton said. "That's kind of the hardest part for us. It was the thing that they loved so much that took them from us."

From what the family has pieced together about that day, the boys, the youngest of five children, had just awoken from a nap when their sisters, ages 11 and 9 at the time, brought them downstairs. A baby gate blocked the stairs but, the family would later find out, was not securely latched. The children's mother was in the kitchen helping one of the girls with a school project when the boys somehow made it past the gate, up the stairs to the bathroom and into the tub. The two had just learned to turn on the water, so the family started covering the handles with a towel or shirt -- and a towel and shirt were later found in the tub, where they probably blocked the water from draining, Ashton said.

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