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Family dodges tragedy in learning about electric shock drowning
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Evelyn Morrison’s electrician concluded the electrical shock her son-in-law Gary Muter and his daughter Ava felt while swimming recently did not come from her dock, which is equipped with an interrupter, a device that shuts off power if it senses increased voltage.

Electric shock drowning prevention tips

  • Never swim in or near marinas, docks or boatyards.
  • Tell others about the dangers inherent with electric shock drowning.
  • Boat owners should have their boat inspected by an electrician with current American Boat and Yacht Council electrical certification or by an ABYC-certified technician. Ask them to install an equipment leakage circuit or ground fault circuit interrupter.
  • Talk to marina owners or operators about the danger of electric shock drowning. Ask them to install a ground fault circuit interrupter on all shore power pedestals and on all marina wiring circuits. Ask if they are having their marinas regularly inspected by qualified electricians familiar with National File Protection Association Codes: NFPA 303 and NFPA 70.

Source: Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association

For Evelyn Morrison, Memorial Day was a holiday to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.

Her daughter’s family had traveled from Forsyth County to her Gainesville home on Lake Lanier, when a day of fun in the sun and water turned into what Morrison believes was near-tragedy.

Her son-in-law, Gary Muter, and 6-year-old granddaughter, Ava Muter, were swimming about 10 feet from her dock when Gary felt a jolt in his elbow that he instantly recognized as an electric shock. Without hesitation, he turned to grab Ava.

“As I went to pick her up again, that’s when I got hit again,” Muter said. “This time, I felt it from my shoulders all the way down my arms.”

“Daddy, what was that?” Ava said, also experiencing a shock in her legs.

“I swam to the dock and lifted her out of the water,” Muter said. “Halfway back, I got hit again and the third time was the strongest.”

The experience rattled the family.

“It could have killed both of them,” Morrison said.

It also has set the family on a mission to find out just what happened that day in the cove off Dixon Circle.
Their research led them to learning about — and believing they may have had a brush with — “electric shock drowning.” It can occur when electric currents go through a swimmer’s body while he or she is immersed in freshwater, paralyzing then rendering a person unable to do anything but slip underwater.

Although it “can occur virtually in any location where electricity is provided near water, the majority of (cases) have occurred in public and private marinas and docks,” states the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association’s website.

“I have been here (since 1993) and this is the first I’ve ever heard about (it),” Morrison said. “Nobody ever breathed a word of this sort of thing happening up here before.”

“Quite frankly, we’re afraid to go back into the water because we don’t know what happened,” said Morrison’s daughter, Kathy Muter.

Morrison has consulted with her electrician, who said the problem didn’t stem from her dock, which is equipped with an interrupter, a device that shuts off power if it senses increased voltage.

“He’s kind of baffled, too,” she said. “He said, however, that (electric currents) can travel in water a long way, but to be that bad with three surges like that...”

Morrison said at the same time as the incident with her family, power went out at her home and elsewhere on the street. But she and her family are not sure whether the outage correlates to the father and daughter getting shocked.

“We’re sort of at a loss,” Muter said.

While Morrison’s family still is trying to understand what happened to them, Alex Laidlaw, vice president of operations for Westrec, which manages Holiday on Lake Lanier and Sunrise Cove marinas, is very familiar with the problem.

“Luckily, we haven’t had any incidents ... at my marinas over the last 20 some years,” he said, “but it’s something we worry about every day.”

He added that they try to educate customers.

“We’re always going out with newsletters talking about the dangers of shock,” he said.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations prohibit swimming at marinas, he said.

“At every dock, we have a sign that indicates that,” Laidlaw said. “Now, does it happen? Sure. Can we prevent it wholly in marinas on a lake this size? It’s impossible to do. As such, we’re really diligent about stray currents.”

Marina employees also keep an eye on power cords. If they notice one not connected properly or in bad condition, it gets pulled.

“People die, if you’re throwing that much current in the water,” Laidlaw said. “It doesn’t take much and you’re done.”

Electric shock drowning doesn’t get much publicity and “the problem is marinas don’t sometimes understand it,” Laidlaw said. “We’re a little more sophisticated on Lanier, so we clearly get it.”

For Kevin Ritz of Portland, Ore., making people aware of it has been a personal mission, including founding the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

He lost his 8-year-old son in an incident 14 years ago.

“I had been around boats and water my whole life and I had never heard of this,” Ritz said.

His son, wearing a lifejacket, died virtually in front of his panicking parents. According to an MSNBC story on Ritz’s ordeal, his wife jumped in the water to rescue him and she felt paralyzed, a sensation she attributed to fear.
One of the worst things about it is that onlookers — including potential rescuers — are rendered virtually unable to help.

“Anybody that touches (an electric shock drowning victim) is electrified,” Laidlaw said.

The problem also can be mistaken simply for an unexplained drowning.

“There is no postmortem evidence whatsoever,” Ritz said. “In my (son’s) case, when I found electricity in the water ... the coroner said there’s no way electricity was involved (because there was) no burns on his body.
“Time and time again, these are, unfortunately, intermittent loads that are going on and off (from) a boat, dock wiring, irrigation pumps,” he said.

One of the tips Ritz’s organization gives to prevent electric shock drowning is sure-fire: Never swim in or near marinas, docks or boatyards. But he also suggests becoming informed and letting others, including marina owners, know about the dangers.

For Morrison and her family, the mystery continues.

Muter said his family doesn’t plan to get back into the water “until we get an answer.”

Morrison echoed that concern, as she looked at her son-in-law.

“If that (electric current) had hit him any worse, as big as he is, there’s no way Kathy and I could have saved him.”

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