GREENWICH, Conn. – Karen Cohn and Nancy Baker share a tragic experience few mothers could fathom: They watched their children die after they were entrapped by powerful suction in a swimming pool and hot tub.
Cohn, of Greenwich, Conn., and Baker, of Thomaston, Maine, have united in their grief and joined forces to fight for tougher pool safety laws and to resist what they say are efforts to weaken them.
"It's not something we'll ever get over, but we're hoping to make a difference so other families don't have to suffer the same fate," Karen Cohn said in her first interview since her 6-year-old son, Zachary, drowned three years ago. "The laws are trying to be rolled back by the pool industry and we really want to make sure that we're there to protect the children."
A spokeswoman denied that pool industry officials are trying to weaken the laws, saying they advocated the best approach for preventing such tragedies.
An annual average of 385 pool- or spa-related fatalities involving children under the age of 15 were reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from 2005 to 2007. An average of 4,200 children are treated annually in emergency rooms for injuries ranging from minor cuts to near drownings.
Zachary Cohn was swimming in his family's pool with his brother and sister on July 28, 2007, when his arm got trapped in an intake valve on the wall in the pool's deep end. Water entering an intake valve is pumped through the filtering system under suction before being pumped back into the pool. Zachary was a strong swimmer, but he was no match for the powerful suction of the drain.
The case led to the arrest of Shoreline Pools President David Lionetti, who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors allege Lionetti recklessly caused Zachary's death because his company failed to install a required safety device that would have prevented the boy's arm from getting stuck in the drain.
Lionetti's attorney, Richard Meehan Jr., says his client was unaware of a 2004 state law that required the device and that most in the pool industry, as well as building inspectors, were not aware of the code change. Meehan says he plans to argue Zachary's death could have been prevented if a drain cover was in place.
"This is just a horrible tragedy," Meehan said. "All the people at Shoreline Pools, particularly David Lionetti, are heartbroken over the loss of this little boy."
Baker's 7-year-old daughter, Virginia Graeme Baker, drowned in June 2002 after being trapped by the suction in a hot tub in McLean, Va.
A 2007 federal law named for Baker's daughter required anti-entrapment devices in public pools. The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted 3-2 in March to interpret the law as not requiring a backup anti-entrapment device on certain pools that have an anti-entrapment drain cover.
Critics said such covers are not enough protection to prevent entrapments if they are improperly installed or inadvertently removed. The Cohns said the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals advocated that interpretation of the law.
The commission's vote angered Cohn, Baker and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who sponsored the law. The three vowed to fight it.
"I think it was absolutely irresponsible and it incorrectly interpreted the federal law," Schultz said.
But Kirstin Pires, director of communications for the pool association, said the drains offer the best form of protection against all types of entrapments.
"There's no upside for people being injured in pools for our industry," Pires said. "We feel that the science shows that this is the best way to do it."
Scott Wolfson, director of public affairs for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the agency is committed to working with the families on education campaigns and other efforts to ensure pool safety.
"We certainly understand their position," Wolfson said. "We want this law to save lives. We care deeply about what happened to the families."
Schultz said Baker and Cohn can play a key role in pool safety changes by speaking from the heart about what happened to their children.
"They've been heroic," Schultz said. "The courage that these two women have shown, their desire and passion to never let what happened to their children happen to any other child, their selflessness, it's truly amazing."
Cohn and her husband, Brian, formed The ZAC Foundation in their son's memory to advocate for pool safety.
"There's not a real voice representing the families out there," Brian Cohn said.
The Cohns are working to create a model law that would require multiple drains to reduce the suction power in pools and a safety vacuum release system that prevents suction entrapment by detecting sudden suction pressure obstruction and shutting down the filtration system.
They hope to raise awareness about pool safety just as earlier efforts led to seat belt and bicycle helmet requirements.
"What we want to do is create the same sort of generational shift around pools," Karen Cohn said.
Baker said she met Cohn a few years ago and agreed to consult with her foundation.
"It's remarkable how quickly she felt a desire and a commitment to try to do something," Baker said.
Drownings and injuries from pool drain suctions are a long-running concern.
Former presidential candidate John Edwards won a verdict of $25 million in North Carolina — at the time, the largest personal injury award in state history — in the case of Valerie Lakey, a 5-year-old Raleigh girl whose intestines were sucked from her body when she was caught in the suction of a pool drain in 1993. The child survived.
Since 1985, there have been more than 150 reported cases of swimming pool drain entrapments, leading to at least 48 deaths and many serious injuries, including disembowelment, of children and adults, according to a lawsuit the Cohns filed against Greenwich, Shoreline Pools and others.
"We realized that there are so many parents and caregivers who just don't know the hidden dangers of their swimming pools," Karen Cohn said.