Most days, it’s the one image that Nancy Baker can’t seem to shake: Her 7-year-old daughter, Virginia Graeme Baker, is trapped underwater. Her eyes are closed and her arms are moving lifelessly with the current.
In a few minutes on a sunny summer day in 2002, Graeme, as she is known, passed away. The tragic incident occurred despite her mother’s desperate attempts to free her body. She was a victim of suction entrapment, a cause of violent injury and/or death that has plagued the pool industry.
“My daughter never should have died,” says the 48-year-old mother of five. “It’s catastrophic when a child dies in any way, all the more so when it’s preventable.
“I believe that every person is humane enough to know the right thing to do,” Nancy adds. “I believe that about the industry, government, homeowners and pool owners. People would not want this to happen.”
Like most parents who have suffered a heart-wrenching loss, Nancy still feels the sting of her daughter’s absence. Graeme (pronounced “Graham”) often is her first thought in the morning and last one at night. But unlike most parents who have lost a child, Nancy is armed with a potent weapon: notoriety. Graeme’s grandfather, Nancy’s ex-father-in-law, is former Secretary of State James Baker III.
By using her family’s political clout and influence, Nancy aims to keep Graeme’s death from being in vain. In the short time since she lost her little girl, Nancy has evolved from victim to healer to spokesperson and now an activist, forcing action where others have failed. Working with Safe Kids Worldwide, as well as in close proximity with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), she is determined that no other family suffers the same fate. Meanwhile, the pool and spa industry, while sympathetic to Nancy’s loss, says it is working continually to improve anti-entrapment standards, and the current measures being advocated, if implemented, will solve the problem.
Nothing in Nancy’s life prepared her for the events of June 15, 2002. Born in Texas to a family of five children, Nancy moved to Connecticut as a teenager and married James Baker IV in 1982. In Washington, D.C., she worked in interior design, specializing in painted finishes. Eventually, she and her husband had five daughters — Rosemary, Hallie, Mary Stuart, and twins Jackie and Graeme (To learn more about Graeme, see “The Little Girl We Lost”).
In the four years since the tragedy, Nancy has learned to tell her story in a measured tone. Still, she pauses several times to compose herself, sometimes forgetting her next word and breaking into tears.
“My oldest daughter was graduating from high school, and we were invited to several parties that Saturday,” she says. “This one was actually a pool party, and my youngest girls were in the water with the other children. I was talking to the hostess when I saw Mary Stuart, who was then 11, running toward me. Her eyes were like saucers. She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Graeme’s in the hot tub.’
“I raced behind her to the hot tub, which was on, but I couldn’t see anything. I kept saying, ‘What? Where?’ And her twin kept saying, ‘Graeme’s pretending. Graeme’s pretending.’ So I jumped in and that’s when I saw her,” she says.
Graeme was on the floor of the hot tub, her limbs moving with the bubbles. “I tried pulling her up, but I couldn’t. I know I kept coming up for air, and I was screaming bloody murder. I pulled and pulled, not understanding what was holding her down,” she says.
Nancy finally jumped out of the hot tub to get help and collapsed on the yard. Two men pulled Graeme out, using enough force to shatter the flat 8-inch grate, which had suctioned her body to the bottom of the hot tub.
Though Graeme was quickly transported to a local hospital, it was too late. “I was sopping wet, wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the floor in the emergency room. When the doctor came out, I remember saying, ‘You cannot be here to tell me that she didn’t make it. You cannot.’ And he said, ‘We did everything we could, but we couldn’t revive her.’
“I don’t think there’s anything worse. There isn’t anything worse.”
Eventually, neighbors took Nancy home to break the news to Graeme’s sisters and her father, who was traveling on business. “That night, I didn’t know what had happened to her. I came to understand it in the next few days. Someone said something about having seen a program about it on ‘20/20,’ and then I realized that she had been pinned,” she says.
The spa where Graeme was stuck had a single drain. Her body was able to cover the entire grate, generating hundreds of pounds of pressure that held her underwater for nearly 10 minutes. (See “What Is Suction Entrapment?”)
From January 1985 through March 2002, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recorded 147 body and hair entrapments, 36 of which resulted in death. These injuries range from hair becoming entangled in a drain cover to entire limbs getting sucked into uncovered drains.
Unfortunately, the extent of the problem is likely understated because emergency personnel often classify entrapment-related injuries as accidental drownings. Indeed, even on the police report investigating Graeme’s death, the 7-year-old is simply identified as “drown person.”
Soon after Graeme’s death, a family spokesperson told Pool & Spa News that the Bakers would hold the industry accountable. At Graeme’s funeral, her grandfather, James Baker, told Nancy, “This never should have happened. By all means, know that if you can try to change this, you’ll have my help.”
Eventually, the Bakers would file a lawsuit against Hayward Pool Products, the manufacturer of the drain cover; Sta-Rite, the maker of the pool pump; and the pool service company that maintained the spa. In late 2004, Sta-Rite settled for an undisclosed amount. No court date has been set for the trial against the other two companies.
Over the next year, Nancy barely held it together. She suffered through her family’s heartache and subsequent divorce from Graeme’s father in December 2003.
Then she began to feel guilty. “I think every single parent feels responsible when a child dies,” she says. “I felt guilty that I didn’t understand entrapment was a danger. I felt guilty that I didn’t know she was in the hot tub and assume the worst. So I got on the Internet and began to look into it.”
In the meantime, Nancy made memory books of Graeme with her daughters. She began attending therapy and prayed frequently for strength. “I thank God every day that I had to get up for my other girls,” she says. “Otherwise, I think I would have just pulled up the covers and said, ‘What’s the point?’”
Eventually, Nancy joined The Compassionate Friends, a nationwide counseling group for parents who have lost a child. There, she saw families who had honored their child’s memory in extraordinary ways. “To understand that you can still, in a way, care for your child and have something good come out of something horrific, helped me,” she says.
Slowly, things started to happen. Driving past a national retail chain store one day, she decided to go “undercover” and stopped in to ask about protecting her pool against entrapment. She was disappointed when she was shown to an area with pool gate alarms and “No diving” signs. A few months later, in early 2004, Nancy read about a drowning prevention symposium in Phoenix and signed up to speak. She offered emotional testimony at the event, which was sponsored by CPSC.
Nancy’s words struck a chord with the audience. “When you go to the meetings, you often hear things that are so sterile — statistics [or] authors of educational and guard programs,” says attendee Thomas Lachocki, Ph.D., and CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. “When I heard Mrs. Baker speaking, it brought new life and a new face to the efforts and missions so many people are working to improve.
“She clearly is taking a personal interest and investment in finding a way to take the direction we all want to go,” he adds. “We want to have less people getting injured, less people drowning and less parents going to their children’s funerals.”
It was also at the CPSC event where Nancy first came across the Safe Kids organization. “In Arizona, we offered testimony solely related to drowning, the importance of barriers and supervision, and those more common aspects of pool safety,” says Alan Korn, director of public policy for the Washington D.C.-based Safe Kids Worldwide.
Nancy, for one, was appalled that entrapment prevention was not a greater priority. In her personal research, she had come across guidelines nearly 30 years old and thought, “If this is the state-of-the-art message about entrapment, then something is falling through the cracks, and one of those things that fell through the cracks is Graeme.”
So Nancy decided to contact the national Safe Kids group and tell her story. It was never part of her plan, simply “the next right thing to do,” she says.
“Once we heard her story, it was tough not to pay attention,” Korn says. “There’s something particularly horrific about death by entrapment. Safe Kids spends a lot of time investigating, researching and trying to prevent children’s deaths. Her story was one of the most disturbing we’ve ever heard.”
Thanks in large part to Nancy’s urging, Safe Kids has decided to focus its 2006 National Safe Kids Week on pool safety. A large component will be devoted to entrapment. Nancy and her ex-father-in-law James Baker will speak at the kick-off event in May.
For Korn, it’s a rare sight to see a parent as committed as Nancy. “What we’ve asked of Nancy requires her to think about Graeme even more. She has to relive it every single day and, naturally, she gets emotional about it,” he says. “But from the moment she walked into our office, I knew we were meeting a woman who had the ability to make a difference.
“We’ve worked with parent advocates many times before,” Korn adds. “The process for change is so slow, cumbersome and sometimes difficult, that many give up or, at the least, lose their energy.”
Despite her involvement with Safe Kids and continuing visits to retail stores, Nancy felt she was getting nowhere. Then, in late 2004, she read about a hair entrapment incident in California and became distressed.
“I think the largest shortcoming of the industry is argument. I don’t understand why you argue against safety measures,” she says. “That’s the only reason that I think you need any kind of government involvement at all. There’s so much argument and no consensus. In the meantime, it’s costing us. It’s already cost me.”
Nancy began to circulate Capitol Hill looking for help. She found an ally in U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. As a Florida state legislator in the late ’90s, Wasserman Schultz successfully lobbied for the Preston de Ibern/McKenzie Merriam Residential Swimming Pool Act, which required new pool or hot tub owners in Florida to install one of four safety barriers.
Now, as a member of Congress, Wasserman Schultz is continuing her work with pool safety. She is currently sponsoring a bill that would offer financial incentives to states that adopt stricter pool safety measures. (See “Putting the Law to Work.”) The legislation describes three safety measures to prevent drowning and entrapment:
• A physical barrier such as a fence.
• Anti-vortex drain covers.
• Safety vacuum release devices.
“I’m certainly hopeful,” Wasserman Schultz says. “When a member is faced with the testimony of someone like Nancy, it’s hard to look that parent in the eye and say ‘no.’ When you educate members of Congress or of a legislative body about the dire problem you’re trying to correct … I’ve almost never had a member vote ‘no.’”
Unveiled at the National Drowning Symposium in January, the legislation has received support from Safe Kids. “This year, we’ll have a public policy component to Safe Kids Week, so our hope is to gain support and compel people to get on the same page regarding safety measures,” Nancy says. “The truth is, I’m never going to make it my business to understand what any of these codes are. I’m going to speak about entrapment and make it real to people.”
Nancy knows she has an uphill battle. She’s been told the numbers are too low to make this problem worth the attention of Congress. Yet she is determined to succeed, with or without the aid of the pool and spa industry.
For its part, the industry’s national trade association asserts that it is on Nancy’s side. The group’s administration says it is eager to help her eliminate the entrapment threat.
“What happened to this poor child is exactly what we as an industry want to take all reasonable measures to prevent,” says Bill Weber, president/CEO of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals in Alexandria, Va. “We need to do everything we can to promote the safe use of our products and services.”
Nevertheless, technical experts say existing guidelines have long addressed the issue, and new standards are in development. “Our anti-entrapment standards go back to the 1970s,” says Carvin DiGiovanni, APSP’s senior director for technical, education and government.
“I think the industry has taken a proactive step in our standards by identifying what the hazards are and the entrapment-avoidance techniques,” he adds.
For DiGiovanni, educating consumers is more important. “We have all this good technical knowledge and information. Now, we have to take it to state officials to adopt this language,” he says. “Obviously, nobody wants to have injuries in pools and spas. We would work shoulder to shoulder with anyone who would help get our standards language into law.”
Wasserman Schultz is skeptical. “The pool-building industry is often a staunch opponent of any safety legislation,” she says, citing lawsuits filed by pool companies against the state of Florida after her safety legislation passed there. “What they say out loud is that they think supervision is the only answer. But the only way they’ve been willing to offer support is if you adopt their ‘model legislation,’ which every drowning prevention advocate in the country says is inadequate.”
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. DiGiovanni says the industry has to provide options, and the solutions Nancy and the congresswoman promote are redundant. Two safety measures — anti-vortex drain covers and dual main drains — eliminate the entrapment threat in most pools. In addition, DiGiovanni notes that Graeme was entrapped in a spa that had a single drain and had there been a second one, the accident never would have happened.
In the end, what matters most to Nancy is keeping Graeme’s memory alive. She may have been powerless to save her daughter, but she hopes the fate of her youngster will empower the industry to promote safety.
“I don’t care what I’m up against,” she says. “I’ve already lost my daughter. All I’m interested in is preventing another child from experiencing what Graeme did — that moment when a little 7-year-old girl recognized she wasn’t coming up for a breath.”
Still, Nancy insists that she is not out to get the industry. In fact, her perspective has softened since 2002. Rather than blaming the industry, she would rather see a trade association or large pool company take the lead in addressing the problem.
“I believe there’s a lot of power in the glorious victories and successes in people’s lives, as well as in the darker, unhappier times,” Nancy says.
“Graeme is a powerful angel,” she adds. “I’m just working on her behalf.”
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