Karen Cohn: Save lives from a needless tragedy

On July 28, 2007, exactly 10 years ago today, I lost my 6-year-old son Zachary Archer Cohn. He drowned in our backyard pool after his arm became trapped by the powerful suction of the pool drain.

Ten years ago our family and community of Greenwich learned for the first time what drain entrapment was.

Ten years ago was when my husband Brian and I decided we never want another family to feel the pain we felt that day, the pain we still feel each day without our little boy.

That is why we started The ZAC Foundation, in Zachary’s memory, to help teach children and families locally and across the country not only about the danger drains can pose in a pool or spa but also how to prevent needless water-related tragedies.

Like many parents, we thought we did everything we could to protect our children around water by enrolling our kids in swimming classes, outlining safe behaviors around the pool and ensuring intense adult supervision. We never heard of the potential dangers lying just below the surface.

Entrapments have been quietly happening for decades, and sadly, still are. Zachary, like other children who have become entrapped, was a strong and proficient swimmer, but swimming skills are not enough to combat an entrapment.

The swimmer, even with the assistance of others, is no match for the hundreds of pounds of force holding them to the drain. That force can trap the swimmer under water causing severe maiming, brain or internal organ damage, and even death.

One of the most well known entrapments occurred in June 2002 to a 7-year-old girl named Virginia Graeme Baker. Graeme, as she is known, died from an entrapment in a spa after she was held under the water by the suction of the drain. Her family, including former Secretary of the State James Baker III, fought relentlessly to protect other families by lobbying the U.S. Congress to pass the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act — or VGB.

This federal law requires that all public pools and spas must have multiple layers of protection and be designed and constructed with two drains, anti-entrapment drain covers and an additional device to prevent entrapment. The law, affecting 300,000 public pools and spas nationwide, passed in December 2007, just months after Zachary died.

Although it is encouraging that public pools and spas are now required to have layers of protection, more than 14 million private pools and spas in this country are subject to varying local and state laws.

After Zachary died, I looked into Connecticut’s law. At the time, like VGB, it too required layers of protection and represented the gold standard for pool safety. Had my pool been constructed and maintained as Connecticut law dictated, Zachary would be alive today.

Unfortunately, the pool and spa industry has succeeded in rolling back safety protections in states like Connecticut. If the industry can lower safety standards in our state after the immense national attention paid to unsafe pool construction following Zachary’s death, safety laws can certainly be weakened in states across the country.

We and other families who have lost a child in this horrific manner continue to fight for the greatest protections so no other family endures the pain we have experienced.

Our foundation continues to advocate for stronger protections both for private and public pools, and most recently did so by testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee about how the federal government and states can work together to enhance safety. Additionally, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Connecticut lawmakers, and those of us in the water safety community formed a Water Safety Task Force aimed at reducing drowning by incorporating a safety curriculum in classrooms throughout the state. I was honored to be selected to be a part of this important task force, as we all work together across the state to save lives.

But more can be done. I ask you to join us in this fight to protect our children from these needless tragedies. Be informed. Be vocal. Educate. Advocate.

Ten years ago I lost my son to something that could have been prevented if the proper pool construction measures were taken. I never want another child to be lost in this manner, and as parents, we need to continue to fight for the safety of our children.

Karen Cohn is a water safety and drowning prevention advocate and co-founder of the Greenwich-based ZAC Foundation, which educates children, families, regulators and lawmakers on how to keep swimmers safe. Learn about safety on our site.