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After recent tragedy, family remembers own loss to electric shock drowning

The Saturday before Easter, two colleagues, Shelly Darling, 34, and Elizabeth Whipple, 41, visited Lake Tuscaloosa to soak up the sun on a family dock. A few hours later, family members discovered the women’s possessions, but saw no sign of the Alabama sunbathers. They called the police and after a search, their bodies were found in the lake. When recovering them, a rescuer felt a jolt of electricity.

According to AL.com, the autopsies revealed the two women died of electric shock drowning, a lesser known cause of drowning.

Electric shock drowning happens when electricity from a dock, boat, pool, hot tub or marina seeps into the water and electrifies it. As swimmers enter the water the electricity paralyzes their muscles, causing them to drown. What’s more, trying to rescue someone experiencing electric shock drowning remains difficult because anyone entering the water receives a disabling stun.

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While many people remain unaware of electric shock drowning, Jimmy Johnson learned more about it than he ever wanted. Last year, his 15-year-old daughter, Carmen, died when she was swimming in a lake near the family dock, which was trickling electricity into the water.

“If I would have known this could happen, or heard about it before — I am not sure if this would have happened to my daughter,” he told TODAY.

Since then, he’s worked to increase awareness surrounding electric shock drowning.

“This happens a lot more than people think,” he said. “There is no telling how many drownings there are caused by electric shock drowning.”

Courtesy of Jimmy Johnson
Carmen Johnson was a varsity cheerleader at Priceville High School in Alabama.

The Electric Shock Drowning Association, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and educating people on the risks of electric shock drowning, recorded 84 cases since 1986. But the organization suspects there are more than what's recorded.

“We believe that we just captured the tip of the iceberg,” said organization founder Kevin Ritz. “These things can happen anywhere there is a deadly combination of electricity and water.”

In 1999, Ritz’s 8-year-old son died when he was swimming in a river near the family boat. No one realized electricity from the boat was seeping into the water and when he grabbed the metal ladder, he received a shock that paralyzed him and caused him to drown. Since then, Ritz has worked to increase awareness of it and has noticed that trends are changing.

“We now have more fatalities from dock wiring than boat wiring,” he said.

What’s more, pools and hot tubs can be just as dangerous. Many times faulty pool lights cause electricity to flood the pool or hot tub, causing fatalities.

Both Johnson and Ritz hope that people will take the life-saving step of including ground fault devices on power sources at the breaker. A ground fault device protects the entire power source from its start, and prevents the current from following any unintended paths during a ground fault (contact between an energized conductor and the ground).

“It is so simple and it is so inexpensive,” Ritz said.

A year without Carmen

On April 16, 2017, Johnson, his friends and family gathered at his house to remember Carmen. Because the first anniversary fell on an Easter the family kept the memorial private and simple. But Johnson and others have felt Carmen’s influence throughout the year.

“She was such a positive person,” he said. “Friends are still sending her messages on Instagram. Even a year later, they are still talking to her.”

Courtesy Jimmy Johnson
Jimmy and Casey Johnson lost their daughter, Carmen, a year ago because of electric shock drowning. The family continues to raise awareness of it so other families can avoid similar tragedies.

That weekend in 2016 felt like any other at the Johnson family lake house on Smith Lake in Winston County, Alabama. Even though it was April, Carmen and her two friends were sunbathing on the dock. As Johnson worked on a pathway nearby, he heard a splash as his daughter dove from the top of the two-story dock into the lake.

While the lake was only 68 degrees, Johnson wasn’t surprised Carmen was swimming. She was always a daredevil.

Johnson realized the ladder wasn’t in the water so he lowered it. He had no idea that the metal ladder carried an electric charge from a faulty light switch. Then Carmen’s friend Reagan jumped in the water and began squealing about the cold water.

But Reagan soon started screaming in panic. Johnson ran toward the girls and noticed Reagan looked terrified as Carmen was sinking under the water.

He thought something was pulling Carmen down so he jumped in to save her. But he realized there was another problem.

“I could feel the electrical current and it was so strong I couldn’t swim in it,” he said.

As he blacked out, his son, Zach jumped in to help. Before losing consciousness, Johnson screamed, “Cut the power to the boat dock.”

His wife Casey did, saving Johnson, Reagan and Zach.

“If we didn’t have that switch and my wife didn’t know about it, three more lives would be have been lost,” he said.

Even though life without Carmen has been difficult, the Johnsons have had a good year. Johnson and Casey visited Israel and welcomed a new grandchild. And, they’ve continued speaking out about the dangers of electric shock drowning.

“We just really want to stress how dangerous electricity around the water is,” he said. “People don’t realize how strong and how dangerous it is even in a big body of water. You would think it would just dissipate but that isn’t the case.”

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