Had it been raining on March 23, 2021, like it was that same day a year later, it’s unlikely Zachary Rager would have jumped into the Chehalis River from the railroad trestle bridge along the Willapa Hills Trail.
But it was sunny and 72 degrees that day in 2021, and Rager told his friends that he wanted to jump from the bridge into the river — which is something he had done before with no problems — but this time, after he started swimming to the bank, he called out to his friends for help due to the cold temperature of the water.
Rager was most likely experiencing cold water shock — a physical reaction to sudden submersion in cold water that greatly increases chances of drowning.
One of Rager's friends got in the water and reached Rager but also began to struggle due to the effects of the cold water. The friend safely made it back to shore, but during the swim, Rager had reportedly gone limp and slipped out of his friend’s grasp.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office led a search with the Thurston County Dive Team and divers recovered Rager’s remains from the river on April 19.
“Zack was a really special person. I mean, you can tell that from today about all the lives that he touched. We’re all here standing in the rain, and I appreciate each and every one of you more than you guys probably even know,” said Rager’s mother, Kim Rager, to a small crowd gathered on the bridge Wednesday for the first anniversary of Rager’s drowning.
Rager’s family and friends released yellow balloons from the bridge as a memorial to Rager.
“Today is one year to the day since Zack jumped off the bridge. Crazy little sh-t,” Rager’s stepfather, Lee Hines, said fondly. “We let him be himself and let him be the person he was going to be, and unfortunately we lost him to a tragic accident.”
Soon after Rager’s death, Rager’s family began petitioning lawmakers for legislation to erect informational signs warning people about the dangers of cold water shock.
“This family has not only brought a community together but educated us about something many of us didn’t know anything about, which is cold water shock, how people can drown from it and how in Washington state and in North America, it happens more than we think,” said Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, on Wednesday.
Abbarno sponsored a bill nicknamed “Zack’s Law” in the most-recent legislative session which, if passed, would have allowed cities, towns and counties to erect informational signs near bridges that would warn about the hazards of cold water shock with the goal of reducing recreational jumping.
While Zack’s Law failed to pass in the short 2022 legislative session, Abbarno has said he intends to reintroduce the legislation in the upcoming long session.
“We are continuing to work on the legislation and the bill to get that passed to help prevent other people from going through this tragic accident,” said Hines on Wednesday.
With spring break and warmer temperatures on the horizon, Rager’s family is encouraging people to educate themselves about cold water shock and to think twice before jumping into a body of water.
Water temperatures as high as 55 degrees can be deadly, and quickly plunging into cold water of any temperature may become dangerous if swimmers aren’t prepared — both mentally and physically — according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
“Cold water drains body heat up to four times faster than cold air. When your body hits cold water, ‘cold shock’ can cause dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The sudden gasp and rapid breathing alone creates a greater risk of drowning even for confident swimmers in calm waters,” reads information from NWS.
Cold water shock can also impair a person’s ability to think and act, and swimmers often begin to hyperventilate, according to NWS.