Former Secretary of state pushes for hot tub safety standards 

10:24 AM CDT on Friday, June 29, 2007

By Shern-Min Chow / 11 News

Dangers exist below the waterline for users of spa tubs, pools and hot tubs.

Sometimes the most dangerous part of a pool or spa is not the most obvious. A simple drain, or intake valve, can be deadly — even in your own bathroom.

“I just happened to lean back in the right spot and part of my hair got caught right here,” Madison Zellers said.

Three weeks ago, the 11-year-old nearly drowned in her parents spa tub.

“The top of my head was probably there; the top of the water was like right there,” Zellers said. “I was a good inch-and-a-half under water.”

The Piney Point sixth-grader splashed around caught a breath and then made the smartest move of her young life.

“Where’s the drain?” she said. “So I put my hand behind my back to find the drain.”
When she could get air, her little brother heard her scream.

Graeme Baker’s story had a different ending.

“Our family says she was angel on loan from God for seven years,”  said her grandfather,  former Secretary of State James Baker.   He spoke to us from his law offices, Baker and Botts, in downtown Houston,  “She was entrapped in the drain of a pool and drowned.”

5 years later, he still carries her photo in his wallet.

“This little girl was a magnificent swimmer,” he added.

She, like other victims, got caught against a pool drain.

A safety video from the Consumer Product Safety Commission demonstrates the powerful vacuum that can be created: 300 to 500 pounds of pressure.  Often most dangerous? Residential pools or spas that usually have only one drain.

Survivors bear tremendous bruises in the telling shapes of pool drains.  

Darlene McNeme’s grandaughter right buttock was badly bruised.  Hayden was just 2 when she stepped into McNeme’s backyard hot tub in east Houston.  She was entrapped on the skimmer.  McNeme recalls she and her husband were right next to her.   “It was surprising cause you think the strength we both have, especially with the adrenalin going so fast, that you could do anything...that’s not the case, its amazing there’s that much suction to something like that.”

McNeme’s husband wedged his hand between the child and the skimmer, breaking the suction.   Drowning was not an issue, but even today, 8 years later, she shudders to think what could of happened.

“If she had been over a quarter of an inch there’s chance she would have been disembowled but luck happened it caught on the one cheek...and...we’re very fortunate, very fortunate.”

That has happened in some cases, including one in which presidential candidate John Edwards was the plaintiff’s attorney.

One solution? A safety vacuum release system that costs about $600.

It attaches to a pump, and if it detects a pressure build up: “It’ll pop the system open allowing air to flow and again releasing the suction,” said Kelley Humble of Aqua Safe Inc.

Other alternatives include multiple or oversized drains; or for older pools and spas, convex drain or intake covers that cost about $40 a piece.

“This provides a raised level so you can’t actually get full coverage from a stomach, a thigh or a buttock and continues to allow water to flow through,” said Humble.

It also prevents hair entrapment, allowing hair to pull cleanly through the center.

In 2005 Texas became one of the first states to require such anti-entrapment devices on commercial pools and spas.

Now the Baker family is pushing for federal grant money for states that pass residential pool safety laws.

“It’s a terrible tragedy to lose someone at the start of life,” Baker said.

For the Zellers, what’s left is bad nightmare and child’s voice in a statesman’s campaign.

“I wanted more people to know about it,”  Madison explained. “Someone else could die that way.”



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