By Gillian Graham, Portland Press Herald

THOMASTON- Ten years after she plunged into a bubbling spa to try to save her drowning daughter, Nancy Baker still thinks about the moment when the 7-year-old realized she was stuck.

She also remembers the helplessness of not being able to pry her daughter Graeme off the drain, the trauma her other children experienced as they watched their younger sister drown, the way time stood still.

She also remembers turning that grief into action, spending countless hours telling Graeme's story and fighting for a federal law so no other child would die the same way.

Today, she takes comfort in knowing that something good came from Graeme's death: an increased focus on pool safety and new requirements that have prevented more deaths.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, enacted by Congress in late 2008, required all public pools and spas to have anti-entrapment drain covers, prohibited the manufacture and sale of non-compliant covers, and established a pool safety education program. In the decade before the legislation passed, 11 children and one adult died after getting trapped by the intense suction of a pool and spa drain according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In the four years since, no one has died.

Baker, an artist who moved to Thomaston after the legislation passed, said the fight has been worthwhile. "I felt like some wrong had been corrected," she said.

The 642 public pools in Maine are inspected every two years, officials said, and all are in compliance with the law. There never has been a suction death in Main, said Lisa Roy, manager of the state agency that inspects pools. 

A TRAGEDY 'BEYOND BELIEF' 

Baker's mission to get safety regulation passed began with 10 horrifying minutes at a backyard graduation party in Virginia on June 15, 2002.

When the Bakers arrived, Graeme and her twin sister were already in their swimsuits. The hopped into the pool to play with other children as nearly 100 adults socialized nearby. The mood was festive, Baker said.

After a while, Baker realized she couldn't see Graeme in the main pool or the attached lagoon-like spa. She assumed that Graeme had run indoors to use the bathroom until one of her other daughters began insisting that Graeme was in the hot tub. Baker couldn't see her youngest daughter below the bubbling surface.

She jumped in and found Graeme at the bottom. "I was pulling at her and could not understand what was keeping her attached to that thing. I didn't even know what that thing was," Baker said. "I just couldn't pull her up, I couldn't pull her out." Baker jumped out of the hot tub screaming for someone to help the girl. Two men eventually freed Graeme by breaking the drain cover and the seal on the 700 pounds of pressure that trapped her underwater.

But it was too late.  "It was beyond belief. It will always be beyond belief," Baker said, her voice falling to a whisper. "You go from music and hot dogs to an absolute nightmare unfolding."

Baker had no idea what had trapped Graeme underwater until an investigating police officer explained that her daughter's buttocks had gotten stuck to a flat grate cover.

"I could not wrap my head around that," she said. "That is something you just never imagine. It's the wrong way for things to happen."

During the sleepless nights that followed the death of her "careful, cautious, peaceful" daughter, Baker began researching pool drains entrapments. She found little, she said, beyond a lawsuit in North Carolina involving a girl whose intestines had been sucked from her body by a pool drain.

But there was enough information to show a fix: an inexpensive curved drain cover that screws over a drain to prevent entrapments.

Determined to prevent more deaths and encouraged by Graeme's grandfather, former Secretary of State James Baker, Nancy Baker started a two-year process to advocate on Capitol Hill for pool safety legislation.

She teamed up with Safe Kids Worldwide, a global network dedicated to preventing injuries to children, and lobbyist Alan Korn to push for requirements for public pools and spas.

Baker said her effort gained momentum when she met Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then a freshman congresswoman from Florida who had advocated for pool safety on the state level.

Despite emotional testimony from Baker and parents of other entrapment victims, the legislation failed in the House. It was revisited and approved during the next session of Congress. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2008.

ONGOING EDUCATION IMPORTANT

Korn, now executive director of the Abbey's Hope organization, named for an evisceration victim, said there is "no question" that conditions have changed across the country. Anti-entrapment drain covers cost $30 to $60 for most pools, and he rarely sees a public pool with a non-compliant cover, he said.

"It is remarkable how much better the condition and quality of public pools are. That's directly related to Nancy's work on Capitol Hill," he said. "We still have a long way to go. I believe we've made a huge dent."

Kathleen Reilly, spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission's "Pool Safely" education program, said the agency focuses on compliance, and on educating parents and children about how to prevent pool accidents.

The potential presence of outdated drain covers in private pools is one reason ongoing education is important, she said. The agency encourages parents to watch children around water, install fences and alarms, and know how to turn off a pool pump if someone gets trapped.

Baker said she is glad that entrapment prevention has gotten more attention, even if she occasionally sees complaints online when public pools are closed for installation of safe drain covers.

"I didn't think it would be four years later and you'd still hear about pools being fixed, but that's OK. It's happening," Baker said. "Of course (Graeme's) memory is alive in us, but when there's something that's constantly in the process of evolving and getting safer and better, I feel like she's pulling that."

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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Excerpted from the eulogy at Abbey Taylor's Celebration of Life Service

Below the surface of a quiet pond lived a colony of water bugs. They were happy, living far from the sun. But they noticed that occasionally, a member of their colony would climb up a lily stalk and disappear from sight, never to return. Where do you suppose she went? wondered a water bug.

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Pool Safety Tips

  • Use the Water Watchdog System to make sure children are always closely supervised in the pool area.

  • Remind kids to stay away from pool and hot tub drains.

  • Never dive into water less than 9 feet deep.

  • Keep gates to the pool area latched.


More water safety tips