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Zach's mistake: 15-year-old dies playing 'The choking game'
Steve Hughes looks at photos of his son, Zach. (Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad-City Times)

On that Sunday morning, Zach Hughes’ alarm went off at 8 a.m.

But 15-year-old Zach wasn’t in his bed.

His dad, Steve Hughes, and his stepmom, Lori Hughes, figured that the outdoorsy, outgoing kid decided to take a hike. His internal clock, after all, was all screwed up from a recent trip to Europe. Lori went to meet their son, Blake, at church. Steve stayed behind to wait for Zach.

But the early morning of Aug. 5 became late morning, and Zach still hadn’t returned to the house.

Maybe he had gotten hurt. Maybe he twisted his ankle or broke his leg.

Steve and Lori searched the 265-acre Boy Scout camp at Loud Thunder where Steve is the ranger.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw his son.

He'd been investing for the future

Zach always had a smile on his face.

He was an avid Boy Scout. He loved camping, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, spelunking, rappelling.

He played the tuba in the Davenport North High School band, where he was between his freshman and sophomore years.

He was psyched for a welding class at school. He could hardly wait to get his driver’s license.

He had an intense interest in World War II. He brought home all sorts of memorabilia from his trip to Europe with a friend.

The stuff, he told his dad, was an “investment for the future.”

Zach and Steve talked about what Steve thought was everything: Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Huffing. How to treat women. Responsibility. Respect.

He once heard Zach tell another kid that while his dad did not condone bad behavior, he was safe. “Call him if you need anything. Here’s his cell phone number.”

But of all the things they talked about, there was one thing Steve didn’t know should be on the list: Kids cutting off their oxygen supply to get high.

Have you heard of   “The Choking Game?”

On that August day at the Boy Scout camp, Steve jumped from the Gator and ran to his son.

Zach was hanging from a platform.

One look at his face and Steve knew.

Zach was dead.

He fought back the intense desire to cut him down. A career in law enforcement taught him to preserve evidence.

Steve yelled at Lori to turn around and not look. Then they left to go back to the house and call the police.

For two days, the thought was Zach committed suicide.

But there was no note.

There was no typical preparation.

Zach had never been treated for depression.

The knot on the noose was loose, even though Zach knew how to tie knots.

What about the WWII memorabilia he brought back from Europe as an investment for the future?

What about the night before, when Zach and his dad laughed, and laughed, and laughed at a movie, “Detroit Rock City,” before hugging and saying they loved each other before going to bed?

Then Don Neece, an investigator with the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Department, called.

He asked Steve: Have you heard of “The Choking Game?”

“Zachary probably became sleepy, probably lost consciousness and couldn’t wake up,” Neece said during a coroner’s inquest into Zach’s death.

Getting high without using drugs

Steve had never heard of it.

It’s a game kids play to get high.

Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner for the state of New Hampshire, has studied the phenomenon.

Kids, he said, have gotten high for generations by depriving themselves of oxygen. However, they are now trying it on their own.

Each year, several dozen die doing so, Andrew said, adding that exact numbers are hard to come by because deaths may be categorized a suicide.

“You are talking about kids who are high achievers, action-oriented, into athletics and such. They have bought into the lie that this is a drug-free high. This is a group who avoid involvement in drugs and alcohol because they kind of got it together.”

The ones who try are preteens up to about age 16, he said. Sometimes, there are no signs, he said.

Parents should be concerned, however, if a child is wearing high-necked shirts for no reason, if they have bungee cords and belts in their rooms, or if there are areas of wear on bed posts. Marks on the neck, marks on their eyes and complaints of recurrent headaches also are signals that a child may be participating in asphyxiation.

A talk that crushes his soul

Steve Hughes stood in front of a room full of parents at Zach’s old school, Trinity Lutheran in Davenport, one rainy night this fall. Zach’s mom, Barb Dreyer of Davenport, his grandparents and his stepmom, Lori, were there, too.

It was his third presentation about the dangers of “The Choking Game.”

His first was to Zach’s Boy Scout troop, which Steve continues to help lead.

His second was to the parents of those boys.

He tells them what “the game” is known as: blackout, flatliner, suffocation roulette, flying high, ghost, throttling.

He tells them that most of the kids who die do it alone. He tells them it causes brain damage. He tells them that many of the kids who do this are high achievers who wouldn’t participate in other risky behaviors.

He will tell anyone else who will listen, even though each time he does, it crushes his soul.

He hopes to convince schools to include a lesson on it in their curriculum.

“If I had had knowledge of this, I would have spoken to Zach about this, he would not have tried, and I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said that night in Trinity’s auditorium. “I want to give parents the opportunity I never had. I want to give them the opportunity to speak with their kids.”

Zach, he said, made a mistake.

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“I have spent my entire adult life fixing people. But I couldn’t fix Zach.”

Monday would have been Zach’s 16th birthday.

Steve will be visiting him at the cemetery.

Ann McGlynn can be contacted at (563) 383-2336 or amcglynn@qctimes.com.

An honor student succumbs to ‘game’

An honor roll student, Dylan Blake had just turned 11 years old.

He was big into animals and nature and doing the right thing, his mom, Kate Leonardi, said. He was anti-drug, anti-smoking, very scientifically minded.

The best way to describe Dylan, she said, is by describing how he drew himself in his kindergarten portrait: With a teeny, tiny body and a humongous, blond-haired, blue-eyed head.

“He was very, very intellectual, into skateboarding and bike riding,” she said in a phone interview. “He was a very good, classic kid.”

On Oct. 5, 2005, Dylan came home from a “perfect” day at school, sat down and had dinner with his mom. He went into his room to work on a book report, and emerged later, proclaiming it was the best book report he had ever done.

“I’m going to get a gold star,” he told her before going back to his room.

As she folded laundry in their St. Augustine, Fla., living room, Leonardi’s mother’s intuition went off. It had been too quiet for too long.

“I went into his room, which was 15 feet from where I was standing. I found him kneeling with a belt around his neck connected to the top rail of his bunk bed.”

She took her son down.

She started CPR.

The paramedics came, and Dylan ended up on life support. Then, he died.

At the hospital is when Leonardi first heard about “The Choking Game,” “which made a whole lot more sense than my 11-year-old just committed suicide.”

After Dylan died, Leonardi launched the DB Foundation at dylan-the-boy-blake.com. “Dylan and I had a unique situation. He was the only child of a single parent. We were in each other’s back pockets.

“You can either lay in bed and wait to die, or you can get up and make sure this doesn’t happen again. My selfishness for my own child is my motivation.”

Because, she said, “Had I known, it would have been on the list of things to talk about.”

— Ann McGlynn

‘A bright and shining star’ snuffed out too soon

Fun-loving with a lot of friends, Kimber Wilson had grand plans for her life.

The Lawrence, Kan., 15-year-old was on the basketball team and involved with church mission work. She had three sisters and two loving parents. She mapped out her marriage, named her future children.

She wanted to be a motivational speaker.

Everything about Kimber said future, her dad, Tim, said in a phone interview. “She was a bright and shining star.”

Her parents are now left to do the speaking for her. Kimber accidentally hung herself in August 2005 while trying to get high.

“A friend of hers and Kimber did it together,” he said. “We believe that she became addicted to the activity. When she tried to do it alone, she died.”

On that August night, the Wilson family had spent the night together hanging out. Kimber went down to her bedroom about 11 p.m.

“My wife went in to get some laundry in her room and found her” the next morning. Kimber was hanging from her dresser; she had rigged up a bicycle lock chain and a belt. “Her rear end was only an inch off the floor.”

The coroner and police knew that it was not suicide. It didn’t have any of the usual signs.

 One of her friends came forward and said she and Kimber had played the game together. Kimber then decided to try it on her own.

“It’s probably more deceptive than drugs because it presents itself as not harmful,” Tim Wilson said. “We really believe she had no idea.”

Tim Wilson had no idea, either.

So the Wilsons learned about “The Choking Game” and now will speak to anyone who will listen, including an appearance on NBC’s Today Show shortly after Kimber’s death. They formed The 8th Day Foundation, at kimberwilson.com.

They tell teenagers:

“When you risk your life, you risk every life around you. Kimber’s destiny is gone. Our lives will never be the same. You are valuable and you are important. Fulfill your destiny.”

— Ann McGlynn

What is “The Choking Game?”

It’s an act of suffocating on purpose.

Adolescents cut off the flow of blood to the brain, in exchange for a few seconds of feeling lightheaded. Some choke themselves with a belt, a rope or their bare hands; others push on their chest or hyperventilate.

When they release the pressure, blood that was blocked up floods the brain all at once. This sets off a warm and fuzzy feeling, which is just the brain dying, thousands of cells at a time.

Who plays?

Mostly boys and girls between 9 and 16 years old, nationwide and around the world. These adolescents are generally high-achieving in academics, activities and sports and don’t want to risk getting caught with drugs or alcohol. The practice is taught through word of mouth, one child teaching another, and through the Internet.

By one name or another, “The Choking Game” has been going on for more than 20 years. But the most recent use of bonds (ropes, belts) and the growing practice of playing alone have increased its deadliness dramatically.

It’s estimated as many as 250 to 1,000 young people die in the United States each year playing some variant of the choking game, but it’s difficult to track statistics because many of the cases are reported as suicides.

Why do kids die?

The plan is to release pressure at just the right time before passing out. If they pass out first, the weight of their body pulls on the ropes and they can die. There’s also the chance of seizures, stroke or injuries from a fall.

Playing the game in any form causes the permanent death of a large number of brain cells. Within three minutes without oxygen to the brain, a person will suffer noticeable brain damage. Between four and five minutes, a person will die. Some of those kids who died were alone for as little as 15 minutes before someone found them, and it was already too late.

Also, the rush they’re getting can be addictive. Many times, “The Choking Game” starts off as a social activity, but adolescents end up doing it alone, which is even more dangerous — nobody’s around to help them if they pass out.

Source: Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play, stop-the-choking-game.com. The organization’s director is Sharon Grant, whose son died playing the game.

LEARN MORE

To request that Steve Hughes come to speak to your organization, call (309) 795-1049 or e-mail

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