CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Electric shock drowning is a serious danger in freshwater swimming and boating areas, but many people have never heard of it.
Chief meteorologist Steve Udelson talked with two local people who learned about the danger the hard way.
Annette Goodman, of Charlotte, lost her sister, Donna Berger, last month.
“Donna and I were very close. It’s going to be hard not to talk to her,” Goodman explained to Udelson.
Berger and her family were on a boating trip with friends at a Tennessee lake. Her 13-year-old son, Zachary, was swimming and began having trouble in the water.
Berger, who was an exceptional swimmer, jumped in to get him to safety.
But after Zachary was safely in the boat, everyone noticed his mother was still in the water.
“She didn’t look right. And they asked if she was okay, and she just shook her head no and dropped her head,” Goodman said.
That’s when Berger’s neighbor, 74-year-old Randy Freeney, jumped in to help. He, too, was a strong swimmer.
“This gentleman was swimming and literally just stopped and rolled over on his side,” Goodman explained. “And he was right next to Donna.”
Goodman is convinced both Freeney and her sister succumbed to electric shock drowning, or ESD, which happens when an electrical current leaks into the water.
The current can come from a dock, marina, or even the boat itself.
It can cause immediate paralysis and even kill.
Electric shock drowning typically occurs in freshwater lakes or ponds. The mineral content of sea water makes it more conductive than the human body, so an electrical current would travel through sea water and bypass the body.
Jason Mertz said he survived an electric shock several years ago while he was swimming in Lake Norman. At the time, however, he had no idea what was happening.
“Jumped off the boat as I always do,” Mertz told Udelson. “Got in the water and all of a sudden, started feeling that tingling. You can feel the immobilization of your muscles. I could feel myself sinking down. At that point under the water, I would describe it as I had given up, this was over. It was done.”
According to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, 43 people have died in the past decade from ESD. Experts think the numbers may be much higher -- that some ESD victims are simply listed as "drowning victims."
Bill Young is director of marina services for Morningstar Marinas on Lake Norman.
He said any water with an electrical source nearby is dangerous to swimmers.
“If you see a household electrical cord being draped onto a private dock, that’s probably not a good place to swim,” he explained. “You really want to be at least 150 feet away from any structure if you are swimming.”
Young advises dock owners to:
- Use only marine-grade power cords
- Make sure those cords have no corrosion or damage
- Have all electrical work done by a professional
Boat owners should unplug power cords from both the boat and the dock whenever they're not being used.
And if a swimmer becomes distressed, Young advises thinking twice before jumping in yourself.
"There's a phrase that says, ‘Reach, throw or row, but don't go.’ You want to throw something to them but you can't jump in the water or else you'll be in the same situation," he said.
Warning signs are posted around Morningstar Marinas, but Young said many people ignore the danger from the electricity.
“The No. 1 thing we would always tell people that are at a marina or public dock, is not to get in the water. That is the number one thing you can do,” Young advised.
Click below to hear how to prevent electric shock drowning
Jason Mertz now has a new respect for the water.
“It’s terrifying,” he said. “Life can be taken from you at any moment, you just don't know.”
And Annette Goodman hopes her sister's death will serve as a warning about the dangers of electric shock drowning.
“I just don’t think people know about it,” she said. “I would have never known that jumping off a boat, if you were near a dock, that there would be anything like that in the water.”
Alarms are available that will go off if an electrical charge is in the water. More information here on some of the available models:
More information about electric shock drowning: