Swimmers die every year from electric shock

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Electricity can be a silent killer, and Kevin Ritz learned about it the hard way with the death of his 8-year-old son. On Monday, July 15, 2013, he spoke empassionately to a group of rescuers about the dangers of electrical currents in fresh waterways. (KOIN 6 News, Gabe Austin)

OREGON CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — A Scappoose man wants to save lives from something many people have never heard of, or even think about. It’s called “Electric Shock Drowning,” and it can kill swimmers instantly.

In Oregon City Monday, first responders received this lesson. It came in the form of a course from the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, led by instructor Kevin Ritz.

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Clackamas Fire tweeted out this image Monday, July 15, 2013, from the ESD training in Oregon City. The tweet bore the message “@KOINNews is at Station 15 with the firefighters learning about electrical hazards at marinas.” (Clackamas Fire, Twitter)

Marinas are where a lot of the ESD danger lies, lurking in the water around electrically charged items. Electricity can be a silent killer, and Ritz learned about it the hard way.

“One minute he was splashing and playing, having a fantastic time,” said Ritz, who lost his son to electric drowning. “And the next moment he was gone, just like that. He didn’t touch anything.”

Ritz’s 8-year-old son Lucas was swimming in a marina on the Multnomah Channel of the Willamette River.

“[S]uddenly, Lucas let out a gasp and apparently became unconscious,” according to one press report. “His life jacket flipped him over so that his face was out of the water. As his wife jumped in the water to save their son, she felt paralyzed, a feeling she attributed to fear. His other son later reported that he, too, felt numb and tingly.”

It’s why Ritz is now relentless about teaching the dangers of electric shock drowning. On Monday he carried with him a non-contact voltage meter, which beeps frequently when near a live current.

“It’s very important,” said Clackamas County Firefighter Mark Kester of Monday’s training. “[For] most of our crews it’s the first time they’ve heard about it, so this has been a big eye opener for everyone.”

Ritz’s message is simple: “Fresh water and electricity don’t mix.” Salt water, in contrast, is reportedly more conductive and a closer make-up to the human body — so electricity has a better chance of passing by a human without harm.

He said marinas and boatyards are havens for electric currents flowing through water. Things like wiring, boats, batteries and generators kill unsuspecting swimmers nationwide every year. Less than a third of the electricity used to light a 40-watt light bulb passing directly through the heart is almost always fatal, according to a 2008 Coast Guard study published by BoatUs.com.

Last year we lost 12 people — mostly kids,” he said. “And we lost three of them on the 4th of July alone.”

And though his son was killed in 1999, for Ritz it’s saving lives now that helps ease the pain, even 14 years later.

“I’ve asked myself how does he do this over and over again,” Kester said. “And yet I’ve seen him three times this month do it, and each time you see that emotion when he’s talking about his son and the tragic loss there.”

Ritz’s goal for his ongoing training classes are simple: He doesn’t want anybody to have to go through what he did.

“It helps me cope,” he said. “That’s what I need to do. It’s my therapy.”

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