Legislation Named After Drowned Centralia Teen Now Goes to State Senate for Consideration
By Emily Fitzgerald / [email protected]
A bill named in honor of a Centralia teen who drowned in the Chehalis River in March 2021 unanimously passed in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday.
The legislation now goes to the state Senate for further consideration.
House Bill 1004, also known as "Zack's Law,” was nicknamed after 18-year-old Zachary Lee Rager, an experienced swimmer who drowned in the Chehalis River after he jumped from a Willapa Hills Trail 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.
Zack’s Law aims to prevent cold water shock drownings by requiring state government agencies and local governments to erect signs warning of drowning hazards when replacing signs or erecting signs near dangerous water hazards.
Signs would be erected at the same time upgrades are made to bridges and other water-adjacent infrastructure, so there would be no significant costs to taxpayers, according to a news release from the legislation’s primary sponsor, Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia.
The bill would also create a mechanism for the public to donate funds to the state for the specific purpose of erecting signs in locations known to attract people to what could be hazardous waterways.
"I am thrilled we were able to get Zack's Law through the House this year, with unanimous support, and over to the Senate," Abbarno said in the news release. "Few people are aware of the very real dangers posed by diving or jumping into cold water, even on a warm, sunny day in the spring or fall in the Pacific Northwest. By educating, informing, and warning people about the risk of diving or jumping into cold water, I believe we can save lives."
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 weather service.
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 body from the river on April 19, 2021.
HB 1004 was Abbarno's second attempt to get Zack's Law through the Legislature. An identical measure proposed in 2021 unanimously passed the House Committee on Transportation on and was referred to the House Rules Committee, but the bill didn’t make it to the floor for a second reading before the cutoff.
Abbarno crafted the legislation in close cooperation with Rager’s family, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, is the bill’s primary sponsor in the state Senate.