Electric shock drowning: hidden danger at the lake

Summer weekends at the lake

Experts say it's a little known and often unidentified killer. Electric shock drowning is suspected in the deaths of two attorneys in Tuscaloosa recently. It also took the life of a 15 year old girl last year at Smith Lake.

Carmen Johnson's parents want everyone to know the danger. They never miss an opportunity to share Carmen's story no matter how painful their loss. "Me and my daughter, we did everything together," says Johnson. They loved the lake and water sports. Before her death, they like so many others had never heard of electric shock drowning.

He recounted their last day together at their home on Smith Lake with friends. Carmen was the first to jump in the water, followed by a friend. Johnson heard their cries for help and jumped in. He quickly realized the danger.

"I was getting electricity so bad; I could barely grab the ladder," recalls Johnson. He yelled for his wife to cut the power. Johnson, his son, and Carmen's friend were able to make it out to safety. Carmen, paralyzed by the electrical current drowned. Divers found her body hours later.

Carmen's family later learned water had seeped into a dock light switch and a ground wire had disintegrated over time. Their dock is now equipped with an alarm to warn them of electricity in the water. "It's my responsibility to make sure my water's safe," says Johnson.

Experts advise inspections of dock wiring and ground fault breakers at least every season. "A storm could move the dock around, dislodging things. Don't be negligent," advises Senior Trooper Chuck Daniel. Trade out metal ladders for plastic ones. Be sure everyone knows where to find the power shut off switch.

Electrician Gary Graves who has been in the business 50 years advises you take it a step further. Shut off the power anytime someone is swimming near your dock. "That's the only way proven safe; I'd just turn it off," says Graves.

He says the lake is no place for do it yourself electricity work or cutting corners. "If you've got the money for a lot on the lake, you gotta have money to put into making it safe," advises Graves.

He says calls for safety checks have doubled as word spreads about the danger with the recent deaths in Tuscaloosa. There are calls for stronger building codes and mandatory inspections of boat docks, something both Graves and the Johnson's support.

"You don't have to have any kind of license or permit, anything to put power to your dock. That's crazy to me," says Johnson. Until that changes, Johnson shares Carmen's story to anyone who will listen.

Experts say we must all educate ourselves and our neighbors. Electric shock will paralyze a swimmer causing them to drown. They may not even be able to scream for help.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International says if you feel a tingling in the water, someone needs to cut the power off immediately and call 911. Get out quickly without touching anything metal. Remember the dock may be the source of the electricity. Others who jump in to try and help put themselves in danger as well. Instead throw a life jacket or life line to help the person out.

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