By Brooklynn Hillemann
Washington State Journal 

Bill would post warnings about cold water shock


January 20, 2022

March 23, 2021 was a sunny day in Lewis County.

Zachary Lee Rager, an 18-year-old Centralia teen wanting to take advantage of the pleasant weather, headed to a familiar hang out with some friends, a bridge connecting the banks of Chehalis River.

When Zachary jumped, he did not know how cold the water would be. He did not know the temperature would read only 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

“He jumped off this bridge so many times, he’d done this time and time again with all his friends,” Lee Hines, Zachary’s stepfather said. “But the difference this time was the river changed.”

Despite his friends’ rescue efforts, Zachary passed out and ultimately drowned as a result of cold-water shock. The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and Thurston County Dive Team crews could not recover his body for nearly a month.

In the wake of his death, Zachary’s family began petitioning online for a law implementing educational signs warning of the dangers of cold-water shock at popular swimming locations around the state. The final product was the proposed “Zack’s Law,” introduced in the 2022 Washington Legislative Session in the form of House Bill 1595 and companion Senate Bill 5673.

“If we can get these signs in place and it saves even one person, then my son didn’t die in vain,” Zachary’s mother, Kimberly Hines, said during an emotional testimony at the Jan. 14 House Transportation Committee’s public hearing for bill 1595.

Sponsors of the bills, Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, and Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, worked with the family to create the two pieces of legislation.

“Like signs that say riptide and warn of undertows on beaches, there are unforeseen dangers in many of our lakes and rivers,” Abbarno said. “If the state knows of these dangers, they have a shared responsibility to warn the public.”

The bill would allow cities, towns and counties in conjunction with WSDOT to erect informational signs near bridges, warning of the potential hazards of jumping in locations people might otherwise think are safe for swimming.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, WSDOT estimates up to 25% of bridges will be deemed appropriate for warning signs, resulting in an estimated cost of nearly $21,000 for sign installation and maintenance.

Signage would inform visitors about cold-water shock, explaining incidents most commonly occur in water 59 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, particularly during the months between Oct. and April. Additional information would warn of the symptoms of shock including cardiac arrest, gasping, fatigue, and vertigo.

“I really believe, based on the number of cold-water shock drownings in the state of Washington, Zach’s law will save lives,” Abbarno said.

The bills would also require Washington State Parks to install a sign in memory of Zachary on or near the bridge where he lost his life.

Kimberly ended her testimony with a question for the representatives: “How many more lives do we have to lose before we put signage up to show people the effects of cold-water shock?”

The companion Senate bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Jan. 20.

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