Spa drains' grip imperils lives


by Donna Pazdera

staff writer

The cloth drawstrings on Jeremy Belotto’s swim trunks turned into a ball and chain when they were sucked into a whirlpool’s drain.

Jeremy, 6, of Lighthouse Point, was held underwater for more than a minute on Monday afternoon while he and five friends played in the spa. The strings pulled Jeremy’s stomach to the drain, said Kelly

Andrews, a pediatric emergency room nurse at Broward General Center. Jeremy was freed when the pump was shut off. His mother resuscitated him using CPR.

On Tuesday, Jeremy was in good condition at Broward General. The worst injury he suffered was a suction burn on his abdomen, Andrews said.

What happened to Jeremy shows how dangerous pool and spa drains can be, Andrews said.

Between 1990 and 1996, seven people died after being pulled against a drain by the suction of a pump, according to the Consumer Product Safety Council. In each case, the victim’s limbs or hair became entangled in the pool’s drain, making it virtually impossible to free the person.

Consumer and fire-rescue officials say there are many others, like Jeremy, who have been pulled underwater by drains and have survived. Some of them are eviscerated by the force of the drain. Others are permanently scarred.

One of those is Scott Garber.

It took three tries for his father, Sandy Garber - a paramedic and a weightlifter - to free his son from the bottom of the whirlpool in February 1996.

Scott, then 6, was sucked into the spa’s drain as he floated about 6 inches above it, Sandy Garber said. The force was so strong , that when he finally freed Scott, he pulled up the child, along with a chunk of concrete and the drain cover still attached to his stomach.

"I could not put my hands anywhere underneath him," said Sandy Garber, a Palm Beach County firefighter who lives in Port St. Lucie. "You can’t break the [suction]."

He managed to pull his son free by grabbing his shoulders.

More than three years later, Scott still has an 11-inch scar on his stomach, his father said.

Until his son’s accident, Sandy Garber was unaware of the dangers of pool and spa drains. Even in his emergency work, he had never heard of such as case.

"I thought something was wrong with my spa," he said.

The biggest flaw, he said, is that his spa drain did not have an automatic cutoff when a blockage was detected.

Such devices are not very expensive, compared to the cost of other swimming pool necessities,

Garber said. For less than $200, one can buy an automatic shutoff device and a dome-shaped drain cover, which prevents objects from getting sucked into a vortex, he said.

Many pools and spas have flat drain covers, which create a vacuum when something is suctioned against them, Garber said.

About a week ago, Garber became the spokesman for a Fort Pierce-based company called Vac-Alert that manufactures a valve that automatically releases an object held inside the drain. Garber put the valve in his drain system following his son’s accident.

"I was made spokesman because I believe in the product," Garber said.

Ron Schroader, a principal with Vac-Alert, said when the drain pump senses an increase in suction, it releases whatever is being held within a tenth of a second.

Schroader knows firsthand the perils of being sucked into the vacuum of a drain. About 16 years ago, he was working on a pool drain as a repairman when his finger got sucked into a pipe. Schroader was wearing a scuba tank, but nearly ran out of air trying to free himself. He was saved when someone shut off the power to the pump, Schroader said.

Then he echoed Garber’s recollection of what happened to his son.

"It happened so fast."



SUN SENTINEL JUNE 16, 1999, Archive page 19






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 All products must be installed as per manufacturers instructions and be job site specific to meet the criteria of each individual application.

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