Parents warn about electric shock drownings after 2016 death of teen

TUSCALOOSA COUNTY, Ala (WIAT) — As investigators look into the possibility that two women were electrocuted before being found dead on Lake Tuscaloosa last weekend, parents who lost their teen in 2016 hope their tragic story warns others of the dangers of electric shock drownings.

Shelly Darling and Elizabeth Whipple were found dead Saturday. Tuscaloosa County officials are waiting on a cause of death from the medical examiner’s office.

Monday, officials said one of their investigators was shocked during the search for the two women, but was not hurt.

Jimmy and Casey Johnson lost their 15-year-old daughter Carmen at their house on Smith Lake last year.

“Easter Sunday was one year exactly that we lost Carmen,” said Jimmy Johnson, Carmen’s father.

Johnson said his daughter died after water entered a light switch box and charged their dock. The electric current then entered the water through the metal ladder she and her friend were swimming towards, Johnson said.

“I saw my daughter underwater and she was down about waist to this other girl who was hanging onto the ladder,” Johnson said.

Jimmy Johnson and his son both jumped into the water to try and help, only to feel the electric current.

“I knew enough that I was getting electrocuted that I started hollering, ‘cut the power to the boat dock, cut the power to the boat dock,’” Johnson recalled.

Electric shock drownings are again top of mind for the Johnson family after hearing about the recent deaths in Tuscaloosa County.

“It just kind of like re-opened, not really the wound in us, but still it brought sadness over us just knowing that someone else was going through what we went through,” said Casey Johnson.

Faulty dock wiring or damaged grounding systems can be to blame for an electric current that enters the water, weakening a swimmer long enough to drown

“Keep your electrical wiring and everything checked on your docks, make sure you have a ground fault breaker,” said Casey Johnson.

Officials warn swimmers not to get close to a dock or marine if they feel a shock or tingling in the water.

The Johnsons said some devices, like The Dock Lifeguard, can act as an early warning system.

While they know nothing will bring Carmen back, they hope their story helps others from experiencing their pain.

“It would mean a lot to Carmen, I know. So anything we can do to help save lives around the lake, we’re going to try to do our best to do that,” said Jimmy Johnson.

After the deaths, Northport Fire Rescue posted even more tips online through a Facebook post:

With the recent drownings on Lake Tuscaloosa it is being said that a possible cause was an “Electric Shock Drowning.” Below are some details as to what it is and some safety tips…

What is an Electric Shock Drowning (ESD)?

ESD happens when a swimmer comes into contact with electrical current. The current – in this case, alternating current (AC) – causes skeletal muscular paralysis, lasting for only an instant, but long enough to incapacitate a swimmer allowing him to drown.

Where does the electricity come from?

The electric current “leaks” from boats and docks into the water. It can come from frayed wires, improperly wired systems or an AC grounding system that is damaged or malfunctioning.

What causes people to be electrocuted?

Electrical current will always attempt to return to its source in order to complete the elecrical circuit. Electrical current is resourceful and will find any way to do that, taking the path of least resistance and most conductivity (anything that will help the current move along its path). The way alternating current (AC) searches for its source is the most deadly for humans because it takes only a small amount of AC to disrupt the electrical impulses that control our muscles and nerves.

How much electricity is needed for this to happen?

Not much at all. It takes only small amounts of leaking AC to incapacitate or electrocute a person. As small an amount as 15 milliamps can cause paralysis, 100 milliamps – or a third of the amount of electricity need to light a 40-watt light bulb – can kill a person in seconds. In comparison, a double AA battery produces 2400 milliamps per hour.

Can you tell if water is unsafe to swim in?

No, but here are some tips that could keep you safe.

  • Never swim within 100 yards of any fresh water marina or boatyard.
  • If you have a boat, have it tested to make sure it is not leaking electricity. You can buy a clamp meter and test it yourself.
  • Have a qualified electrician do any electric work needed on a dock or on your boat.
  • Do not use a household extension cords for powering your docked boat.

If you feel “tingly” in the water, you could be at risk for shock. In that case you should:

  • Have someone turn off the shore power connection at the meter base and/or unplug shore power cords.
  • Tell anyone in the water to swim away from the dock.
  • Stop anyone else from entering the water.
  • If you believe someone has been shocked, reach, throw, row, but don’t go into the water to get to anyone who you think has been shocked.
  • Call for help. Use 911
  • Try CPR on the person; don’t stop until trained help arrives.

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