Special Segment: Deep Trouble
August 2, 2010 (CHICAGO) (WLS) -- Because of new federal safety standards, public pools were supposed to be upgraded to keep swimmers safe from powerful drain suction. The feds largely leave enforcement up to the states.
As part of a month-long investigation, ABC7 and the Daily Herald have found that here in Illinois more than 1,000 pools have failed to meet federal standards.
When Alex Martinez was 11 he was sucked in and pinned underwater while swimming past a drain on the side of a Wheaton pool.
"I'm trying to get off and I'm just stuck there," said Alex Martinez. "I actually was praying. I was like, I don't want to die here... the grate behind me had snapped, and it was trying to bend me into it."
Alex was stuck underwater without air for several minutes, breaking several bones in his back before being pulled from the drain's hold. Alex's mom Amy watched as paramedics worked on her son.
"What happened in the pool? What happened in the pool that day? What happened? How did he get to this point? I never even considered a pool filter," said Amy.
"It's a miracle. It's not luck. It's a miracle that he's alive," said Paul Pennington, head of Pool Safety Council, www.poolsafetycouncil.org .
Pennington helped write the new federal law designed to prevent further suction accidents like Alex's. He says since 1980 there have been at least 150 reported suction entrapments and 70 deaths. Pennington says the main component of the new law is trading these old drain covers for new anti-suction covers that won't trap people underwater.
Even though the law has been on the books for nearly two years, state data shows that only about a hundred pools have made the necessary changes.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, statewide 1,023 operational pools don't meet federal standards and the owners haven't applied for a permit to make the required safety upgrades. That means about 30 percent of all Illinois public pools are out of compliance.
"They absolutely should be shut down," said Pennington.
"I think inherently, swimming facilities are a liability. You know, we can't breathe under water so anytime you're in the water you're at risk," said Justin Dewitt, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health's swimming facilities.
Dewitt says nearly 250 Illinois pools are working on improvements but some still require permits and renovations to become compliant. The state lets pools still operate while they're waiting to begin the work and plans to check the more than a 1,000 non-compliant pools during regular annual inspections.
"If we felt like any facility wasn't safe they absolutely wouldn't be operating," said Dewitt. "I think that you certainly could make the notion of, hey just shut them out all down till they're compliant...we weigh that with economic and other affects that would create if we shut down that many pools in the state of Illinois."
Alex Martinez is worried that dangerous drains may be still active in some pools.
"Warn your kids. Make sure they know that the grates are not something to play with. Don't go near them. I mean just going near them you can be sucked in," said Martinez.''
Alex's accident occurred before the new federal standards took effect. His family sued and received a settlement.
Tuesday and Wednesday's Daily Herald will take a look at how some suburbs are dealing with the problem.
NOTE: If your pool is not on any of the below lists, it is considered in compliance by the state. The lists include pools either non-compliant or that have recently applied for/or received permit approval.
Illinois Pools Not in Compliance with Federal Standards
Improved Illinois Pools: Now in Compliance with Federal Standards
Improved Illinois Pools: Permits Approved
Improved Illinois Pools: Waiting for Permit Approval
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