Her name was Tanya Nickens and she was a 16-year- old high-school junior
who was attending an alcohol-free, prom-night party at a health club in Wall
Township, N.J.. on Saturday, May 25. She and friends were enjoying the
facility’s spa when she dipped below the water’s surface and got stuck on
one of the vessel’s two 12-by-12-inch drains.
Despite attempts by her friends and a lifeguard to free her, the force
holding Nickens to the bottom of the spa would not let her go, and she
remained pinned under water. There was no shut-off switch near the spa, and
the door to the equipment room, which was located on another floor, was
For reasons no one can explain, this story captured the national spotlight
where other, similar accidents in the past had not. Reports of Nickens’
death surfaced in major newspapers and on local newscasts in many cities
across the country. Nationally broadcast programs including "Oprah,"
"20/20" and "The Today Show" used the accident as impetus
for segments examining the danger of suction entrapment.
Many reports contained misleading information, especially early newspaper
stories that attempted to outline the conditions surrounding Nickens’ death.
One paper reported that she was trapped by 14 tons of pressure, an
impossibility that was nonetheless picked up by several other publications.
Others reported that the grate covering the drain had been detached at the
time of the accident. In fact, subsequent investigations suggest that the
grate was possibly broken during the accident by contact with Nickens’ body.
Immediately following the accident, the New Jersey Department of Health
issued a public-safety advisory, as did the U.S. Consumer Product Safety
Commission. But those warnings only reinforced measures already outlined in
documents such as The Standard for Public Spas, published by the
National Spa & Pool Institute and the American National Standards
And while those currently looking at suction accidents agree that increased
awareness of existing recommendation-such as installing dual drains and
spa-side safety switches and conducting mandatory inspections is needed, the
issue of what more can and should be done remains at the fore.