A bill intended to help prevent future cold water shock drownings has died in the House Rules Committee; but bill sponsor Rep. Peter Abbarno is adamant that this isn’t the end of “Zack’s Law.”
House Bill 1595 was nicknamed after Zachary Rager, a Centralia teen who drowned in the Chehalis River last year after he jumped from a railroad trestle bridge and experienced cold water shock, a physical response to sudden immersion in cold water that includes increased heart rate, faster breathing and potentially uncontrolled gasping and uncontrolled movement.
If passed, Zack’s Law 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.
The law would have also created a fund for the public to donate money for the purpose of erecting such signs, similar to the state’s memorial highway program, and required state agencies to consider signage when applicable to new public works projects.
Abbarno worked closely with Rager’s family to draft House Bill 1595. The bill unanimously passed the House Committee on Transportation on Feb. 1 and was referred to the House Rules Committee, but the bill didn’t make it to the floor for a second reading before the Feb. 28 cutoff.
“I am disappointed that this important bipartisan piece of legislation did not reach the house floor for a vote since it received unanimous support in the House Transportation Committee. However, it is not uncommon in a short session for legislation to not be passed from a particular chamber,” said Abbarno in a written statement to The Chronicle on Thursday. “Zack’s family, friends, and I are committed to saving lives through Zack’s Law and preserving his memory. Next year is a longer legislative session and it is my hope that Zack’s Law to prevent cold water shock and drownings will receive a greater priority and become law.”
It was sunny and 72 degrees when Rager and three of his friends went out onto the railroad trestle bridge crossing the Chehalis River on March 24, 2021.
Rager told his friends that he wanted to jump in — 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.
One of his 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.
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.
“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 the NWS.
Cold water shock can also impair a person’s ability to think and act, and swimmers often begin to hyperventilate.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office led a search with the Thurston County Dive Team and divers recovered Zack’s remains from the river on April 19.
If passed, House Bill 1595 would have required Washington State Parks to install a sign in memory of Zachary Rager on or near the bridge where he lost his life.