Powerful pumps of whirlpools a danger to kids, officials say

Miami Herald Broward Edition
June 16, 1999

 

Powerful pumps of whirlpools a danger to kids, officials say
By DAVID GREEN
Herald Staff Writer

Jeremy Belotto hoped to surprise his cousins Monday by dunking himself in his family’s whirlpool and then popping back up.

Two minutes later, the 6-year-old was still at the bottom.

Although his mother pried him off he bottom before he drowned, the Lighthouse Point    youth fell victim Monday to what safety officials consider a serious health hazard — children sucked under by powerful vacuum pumps.

"He’s doing fine now, thank God," said Jeremy’s mother, Kathy Belotto, from Broward  General Medical Center’s intensive care unit on Tuesday. "They gave him graham crackers. He’s actually eating solid food now."

Between 100 and 209 people are trapped by whirlpool intake valves each year across the country, according to the spa industry. Like Jeremy, most escape with bruised bellies.

Some, however, are not as lucky.

In 1994, a 12-year-old girl drowned in the outdoor whirlpool at the Fontainebleau Hilton Spa in Miami Beach. While she was competing with friends to see who could stay underwater the longest, the intake valve sucked in her hair.

Last year, an Il-year-old Missouri girl died after she tried to retrieve a ball from a spa’s intake drain. It sucked in her entire leg.

In Broward County, such incidents are relatively rare, averaging one per year out of roughly 60,000 emergency calls. But rescue officials say the issue is critical in South Florida, home to one of the nation’s highest concentrations of pools and spas.

Most Jacuzzi entrapments begin as they did with Jeremy Belotto —frolicking in the absence of adult supervision. In Jeremy’s case, his mother had ducked inside for a moment to help another son change out of his swimsuit.

Jeremy dived to the bottom of the whirlpool, where the drain sucked in his swimsuit drawstring. Thrashing underwater, he could not break free.

His brother was swimming in the adjacent pool, and noticed Jeremy had vanished. He scrambled over and jumped in.

"I tried lifting him," recounted 10-year-old Nick Belotto. "He wouldn’t budge. I ran inside and screamed for my mom.

Kathy Belotto sprinted out and leapt into the whirlpool. She yanked her son out of his swimsuit and performed CPR.

Although he was initially limp and not breathing, she was able to resuscitate her son.  Jeremy suffered a bruised stomach; doctors expect him to make a full recovery.

Spa industry officials say the problem begins with powerful vacuum pumps, which on  average suck in 80 gallons of water per minute. It requires roughly 380 pounds of force to remove a person stuck to an intake grate.

"A kid could never release himself from that," said Steve Finn, president of American Whirlpool Products Corp., a Hollywood whirlpool and spa manufacturer.

Compounding the problem are flat grates over intake valves and the absence of a second    pipe that can draw in water if the first one becomes blocked.

Neither are required by state law, which places no safety requirements on home whirlpools.

The result: A vacuum force that can disembowel a child in a matter of seconds. Or keep him pinned underwater until he drowns.

"I’ve been in this business since 1967, and I can tell you, this kind of accident is far too common, said Ron Schroader, technical director at Vac-Alert™ Industries, LLC , a Fort Pierce manufacturer of spa safety devices. "There’s absolutely no legislation governing this whatsoever."

Short of stricter state laws, rescue officials say there are steps whirlpool owners can take to avoid such accidents: Install a second intake pipe: cover the intake site with a raised rather than flat grate; add a "vacuum breaker."

These devices inject air into the pumping system when ‘he intake grate is blocked. They cost several hundred dollars, take half an hour to install and require no maintenance.

For the Belotto family, Monday’s whirlpool accident was nearly the second tragedy to strike their family in the past several years. Jeremy’s father, Joseph Belotto, was among five Fort Lauderdale parks workers fatally shot in 1996 by a disgruntled former parks employee. 
 

SAFETY TIPS

  •  Never allow children to use the whirlpool unsupervised
  • Install a fence around the whirlpool to keep children out.
  • Install a second intake pipe in the whirlpool’s pump system.
  • Grates over the Intake site should be round, not flat and should require tools to remove.
  • Pump shut-Off valve should be within easy reach.
  • Install a "vacuum breaker." which shuts off pump if intake is blocked.
  • Teach children that intake sites are dangerous and should be avoided.
  • Adults should learn CPR.
  • Never drink alcohol before or while using a whirlpool, it causes drowsiness and leaves the whirlpool user vulnerable to being trapped by an intake pipe.


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