Water Recreation and Electric Shock Drowning: Lucas’ Story

Understand and Avoid the “Silent Killer”

Everybody who knew eight-year-old Lucas Ritz was his friend. The bright, outgoing boy was well-known to everyone in his Scappoose, Oregon marina community. He shared his parents’ passion for boating and seeing new places and dreamed of becoming a boat captain.

His father and mother, Kevin and Sheryl Ritz, were very safety conscious. The kids always wore life jackets and were closely supervised, so the tragedy of that hot August 1st in 1999 was unimaginable.

“One second he was splashing, having a great time, and the next moment he’s quiet, apparently unconscious, floating on his back doing nothing,” says Kevin. ”Not only did he have on a life jacket, but the type that when you go unconscious, keeps your face out of the water.”

Lucas had been swimming with his brother and friends at the marina. They were floating down the channel, letting the current carry them to the end of the dock where they would get out, go back up, and do it again. Sheryl was walking down the dock to keep an eye on them. 

She recalls, “They went past a boat. I walked past on the other side. I saw that he was heading to the dock to get out of the water. Then all of a sudden he screamed and rolled (back) on his life jacket. I yelled for help, then jumped in to help him, and immediately I felt like I couldn’t move.”

By then Kevin was on hand as both were pulled from the water. “I’m very puzzled as to why (Lucas) is unconscious. I check for respiration, there was none. I check for heartbeat, and there wasn’t any. Hoping that I’m doing this wrong, I start CPR.”

Lucas never regained consciousness, and the coroner ruled his death a drowning; but Kevin refused to accept that. His investigation led to the discovery that a boat docked where Lucas was heading was leaking 120 volts of electricity into water. Lucas was killed as he entered the energized water, and Sheryl had been paralyzed when she jumped in to help.

Kevin’s insistence on understanding what happened, and why, propelled him to a career as a Master Marine Technician and certified trainer for the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC). He and his family are working to raise awareness of what is now called “electric shock drowning” or ESD, the cause of multiple swimming deaths throughout the country each year. They are working with the Safe Electricity program to teach people about ESD and to prevent the kind of tragedy that took Lucas’ life.

Kevin adds, “Anytime somebody drowns in a marina, like our own case, it’s just called a drowning. The reality is, unless there’s people, personnel, on the ground that can do a proper investigation, any drowning in a marina is suspicious from my standpoint. How many of these things actually occur? We know that the ones we capture are just tip of the iceberg.”

Those who enjoy boating and water recreation should understand these safety precautions: 

  • Do not swim around docks with electrical equipment or boats plugged into shore power. 
  • If you are in the water and feel electric current, shout to let others know, try to stay upright and swim away from anything that could be energized.
  • If you are on the dock or shore when a swimmer feels electrical current, do not jump in. Throw them a float, turn off the shore power connection at the meter base and/or unplug shore power cords. Try to eliminate the source of electricity as quickly as possible; then call for help.

Those who own boats should take these measures:

  • Regardless of the size of boat, maintenance of the electrical system should be done by a professional familiar with marine electrical codes.  
  • Boats with alternating current (AC) electrical systems should have isolation transformers or equipment leakage circuit interrupter (ELCI) protection, comply with American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standards and should be serviced by an ABYC Certified Tech.
  • Fuses are rated to protect the wire, not the appliance. If a fuse blows continuously, it should NOT be replaced with a larger one just to keep it from blowing again—something else is wrong. Get it checked out.
  • Have your boat’s electrical system checked at least once a year. Boats should also be checked when something is added to or removed from their systems.

For docks, follow these steps:

  • All electrical installations should be done by a professional electrical contractor familiar with marine codes and standards and should be inspected at least once a year.
  • Have a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) breaker installed on the circuit(s) feeding electricity to the dock. A GFCI will trip the circuit and cut off power quickly if there is a problem.
  • The metal frame of docks should be bonded to connect all metal to the AC safety ground at the power source.
  • Neighboring docks can also present a shock hazard. Make your neighbor aware of the need for safety inspections and maintenance. Marinas should comply with the National Electrical Code (NEC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes.

“Every time we have to go back and think about and talk about what happened, it’s tough,” says Sheryl, “but the reason that we do it is we keep tracking this stuff, and it’s still happening. People don’t know, and that was us 14 years ago.”

Kevin adds, “You don’t want this to happen to you. That hole will never be filled, and it’s so simple to resolve.”

Help prevent ESD. Learn more and see the video of Lucas’ story at SafeElectricity.org.