Channel 2 Investigates

There's a potentially fatal hidden danger in the water

ATLANTA — Area lakes hold a hidden danger many people have not heard about.

It's called electric shock drowning, and this spring, it took the life of a high school student.

Electric shock drowning is when electrical currents, say from a faulty outlet, get into the water.

It sends volts through your body, paralyzing a person and they drown.

That's what happened to Carmen Johnson at Smith Lake, about an hour north of Birmingham.

Carmen's parents talked about it with Channel 2's Dave Huddleston.

"It was a beautiful day and we were all outside," Jimmy Johnson says about the April day his daughter died.

She had jumped off the family’s dock and tried to get her friends to join her.

“She was smiling, telling her friends, ‘It’s not that cold, come on in,’” Johnson said.

One friend, Reagan Gargis joined Carmen in the lake.

But no one knew there was a faulty light switch on the deck.

When Jimmy put a metal ladder in the lake, it sent electricity surging into the water.

Jimmy, who’d walked away at this point, heard a cry for help.

It was Carmen’s friend, Reagan.

“I saw her hanging on the ladder looking at me like, ‘please help me,’" Johnson said.

He sprang into action, but knew right away that something was wrong.

“As soon as I dove in, I could feel the electric current.” Johnson said.

The electricity paralyzed him.

That’s when his son jumped in to help.

"I started blacking out and I started going underwater," Johnson said.

But he was able to yell to his wife, Casey, to cut the power to the dock.

Casey cut the power, and they heard more yelling.

"I can start hearing them talking and him yelling, ‘Carmen, where's Carmen?’" Casey Johnson recounted.

Carmen’s friend Reagan made it out of the water. Carmen didn’t.

"There are some hard days, because we miss her so much," Casey said.

But they work through those hard days, telling others about the dangers of swimming near docks and marinas, where electricity could seep into the water.

No government agency tracks the cases of electric shock drowning.

The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association has tracked 42 cases in the past decade where people have died in water from electric shock, 27 of those cases were on fresh water lakes.

But the number of deaths could be much higher, if there are no survivors to explain that the water had an electric current.

This hidden danger hit very close to home for a local family.

A Forsyth County man was swimming off a family dock at Lake Lanier about three years ago when he felt an electric shock.

He was able to get himself and his daughter out of the water.

Huddleston contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers -- both agencies are aware of ESD.

All marinas at Lake Lanier are supposed to have signs that say “no swimming.”

A corps spokesperson told Huddleston that they inspect private docks on Lake Lanier every two years

The Johnsons are going one step further -- encouraging people to buy a dock lifeguard, a siren sounds and have lights flash whenever electricity gets into the water.

The Boat Owners Association of the United States recommends that if you’re in the water and you feel electric shock:

  • Resist the urge to swim toward the dock.
  • Shout, so people will know you're in trouble.
  • Try to stay upright and back away from the dock, then try to get to land at least 100 yards or more from the dock.
  • Then go to the hospital to make sure there are no lingering effects that could be dangerous.