A silent and powerful force lurks in tens of thousands of public and backyard pools. And the CBS4 I-Team has learned that, despite a new federal law designed to prevent it, the danger remains. CBS4 I-Team investigator Stephen Stock shows why Florida Health Officials remain powerless, unable or unwilling to enforce federal law and stop the danger from lurking under the water.

 

"Jordan even though you were with us just a little while, " reads the poem Donna Bucy recites about her son nearly every day. "I miss him. I miss him a lot," Bucy said.

The Ocala mother lives with the memory of what happened to 10 year-old Jordan ten years ago this month.

"I feel like he should still be here," said Bucy. "He would be 19."

On August 22, 1999, Jordan died after the drain in his family's spa sucked him under a few feet of water and held him there despite all efforts to pull him out.

Donna Bucy remembers it as if it were yesterday. "I jumped him and I tried to free him the suction was so great that I couldn't pull his hand out," said Bucy.

Think that's impossible?

Then talk to Pembroke Pines police officer Dave Parsons, a veteran officer who's responded to dozens of pool and spa accidents over his career.

"I was thinking in my head what is this lady doing get him out of the pool," Parsons remembers of the incident this past July 4th at a family spa.

Officer Parsons regularly lifts weights and by all accounts is as strong as an ox. But even he could not free a five year-old stuck in the spa drain, the same problem that Donna Bucy had ten years ago. This time Parsons and his colleague, Dennis Cuba found the five year old stuck underwater sucked into a family spa.

Officer Parsons found the child's mother, aunt and grandmother bailing out the spa's water because they couldn't free the child. Despite his strength and training Officer Parsons couldn't get him out either.

"I pushed her (the mother) out of the way the whole time thinking to myself "How could she not get him out of the water?"" officer Parsons said. "I tried to pull him out of the water without a lot of effort and realized immediately that he was seriously stuck."

"I took a good deep breath and went underwater and got a hold of him the best that I could possibly get a hold of him as long as I could hold my breath pulling and pulling and pulling," the veteran officer said, describing those frantic moments.

"I even pulled at an angle to try to get his arm out because I could see underwater and couldn't get him out," Parsons said.

But unlike Jordan Bucy's tragedy this one had a happy ending. That child, 5 year-old Miguel Marin, emerged alive, well and showing no effects of nearly 5 minutes under water, trapped in his spa's suction. All because Parson's colleague, police officer Dennis Cuba was finally able to free Miguel's arm at the last second, after all the power and all the spa's suction devices had been turned off.

"I don't know how he survived because it was a miracle," said Miguel's mother Adriana Rozo Marin.

As he arrived at the spa scene there in Pembroke Pines, officer Cuba had the same thoughts as his fellow officer Dave Parsons.

"I thought 'It's got to be easy,'" officer Cuba said. "How can you not get him out? I jumped in there yanked. He didn't come out. I yanked again. He didn't come out."

Finally times got desperate.

"And the third time I actually made a decision," officer Cuba said. "(I said to myself) 'I'm pulling him out. I don't care what happens.' I fully expected him (Miguel) to be hurt. I expected his arm to, maybe, come off. But it was better than the alternative (drowning.)"

According the US Consumer Product Safety Commission there have been at least 83 pool and spa suction entrapment cases nationwide from 1999-2008. Those accidents killed 11 people, mostly children between 5 and 10 years of age, although one 45 year-old also died.

69 other people were seriously injured according to the US CPSC.

"This is what used to be used?" I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked referring to an old-style pool drain grate.

The problem and danger seems so simple.

It's usually just a flat drain cover hiding a powerful and deadly invisible suction found at the bottom of thousands of pool and spas drains.

They are suction systems that exert between 500 and 800 pounds of force on anything stuck in it.

They are drains that can become deadly if the flat covers aren't replaced or if safety devices such as commercially available shutoff valves manufactured by companies such as VacAlert or DrainSafe are not installed.

"Pool safety to me consisted of teaching your children how to swim," Donna Bucy said. "I never imagined that my child would have been entrapped in a drain."

Miguel Marin's mother thought the same thing.

"We didn't think it (the suction) was going to be so powerful...we underestimated it really," said Adrian Rozo Marin.

"There's nothing to prevent suction (using flat drain covers.) You can get sucked, entrapped yes," said Miami-Dade Health Department Engineer Supervisor Nicholas "Nick" Heybeck.

"There's no excuse no excuse for this to happen," said Donna Bucy referring to Miguel Marin's accident ten years after Jordan's death.

The CBS4 I-team has learned that despite the federal law called the Virginia Graeme Baker Act which prohibits these flat drains or requires back-up shut off valves for direct suction drains, there are hundreds of public pools and tens of thousands of private pools throughout South Florida that potentially carry this hidden suction hazard.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Act was named after the granddaughter of former US Secretary of State Jim Baker.

Baker's granddaughter, Virginia Graeme Baker, died in 2002 when she became entrapped in a spa drain at her home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

One of the most vocal supporters and proponents of the federal law was US Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz who represents parts of Broward County.

Ironically, Pembroke Pines' 5 year-old Miguel Marin, who almost drowned, lives in Wasserman-Schultz's district.

You can find the entire federal law here.

You can read a summary of the law by clicking here.

"According to federal law they had to comply by last year," said the Health Department's Nick Heybeck.

"So the (US) Consumer Product Safety Commission could come down and shut down these pools."

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, "But you can't?"

"We can't," Heybeck replied.

Why?

Because Florida's Health Department simply won't enforce federal law.

"How many pools do you do a day?" Stock asked one inspector

"At least ten a day," she replied.

The I-Team went along with a state health inspection team one day this summer. The team was tough. They were thorough...

"You have a good chlorine reading," said one inspector.

They were vigilant. But until state law catches up to the federal law these state health officials say they can't or won't cite or close down pools with dangerous drains or suction systems.

"As the state of Florida I only have the jurisdiction that's given to me by our state of Florida laws," said Miami-Dade Health Department's Nick Heybeck.

Investigator Stephen Stock asked "And right now you can't close a pool if it doesn't have a proper drain cover even though it does not comply with federal law?"

"Right," replied Heybeck.

"Because you're a state inspector?" asked Stock.

"Right," said Heybeck.

And Florida law won't catch up with federal law until later this winter even though the federal law took effect a year ago.

"What took the state so long (to catch up with the federal government rules)?" I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked.

"I'm not sure," Health Department Engineer Supervisor Nicholas "Nick" Heybeck replied. "You could also ask where is the Consumer Product Safety Commission and why aren't they down here inspecting these pools also?"

"I think they (state officials) are wrong," said Donna Bucy. "To me it's as simple as closing the pool until a drain is fixed. It's that's easy."

The I-Team has learned that out of 4,000 pools in Miami-Dade health officials say about 800 pools and spas potentially have these hidden and deadly suction problems. In Broward County, health officials tell the I-Team that there 1479 out of 4830 pools which were built long enough ago that they potentially have these suction hazards.

Though some public pools have already fixed the problems the CBS4 I-Team discovered dozens of other pools and spas in South Florida, including some at apartment complexes and condominiums, that haven't had safety systems installed.

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked the state inspector "Roughly how many of these don't have this drain cover like this pool does this one is in good shape, but the one prior to this does not?"

"We're getting a lot of forms from contractors who are changing out these drain covers," said Miami-Dade Department of Health Engineer Nick Heybeck. "I'm not sure of the exact numbers right now."

Data from Florida's County Property Appraisers' offices from October, 2006, (the latest data available) shows that there are 1,093,655 private pools in Florida, 194,302 in South Florida alone. But perhaps most troubling, state officials tell the CBS4 I-Team that no one knows exactly how many of those spas and pools, like the pools in Donna Bucy and Adriana Marin's backyards, hide these dangerous drains.

"I couldn't get it (Miguel's arm) out (of the spa suction) and still to this day I can't understand that," said Pembroke Pines police officer Dave Parsons.

"It's so hard. It's so hard," said Miguel's mother Adriana Rozo Marin of the suction pressure that nearly drowned her son.

"Even after the pump was off I couldn't pull him out," Rozo Marin.

"Only a miracle in those officers saved him. Maybe God has some plan for him and his life. And that's why he was saved."

Marin said the family considers itself lucky and blessed that Miguel survived his encounter with the spa's underwater suction.

"So JB you're in our hearts..." "Good-bye for now, dear friend," goes the poem read at Jordan Bucy's funeral.

10 years after reading this poem at his funeral, Jordan's classmates read the same poem once again at their high school graduation.

"Our friendship will never end," continues the poem.

It also would have been Jordan's graduation except for that simple suction danger hidden in drain under a just few feet of water.

"My thoughts still haunt me of Jordan being trapped only under four feet in depth of water not being able to free himself and finally when help comes still unable to get out of the Jacuzzi," said Donna Bucy.

The new chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Inez Tenenbaum, wants ALL pools and spas in violation of federal law to be closed immediately.

But CPSC spokeswoman Kathleen Reilly admits that states are NOT required to enforce this federal law.

Here in Florida Health Department officials say they won't cite or close down pools until state law catches up with the federal law.

That won't happen until November 20, 2009, thirteen weeks from now.


 

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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