One year since Zack’s Law passes, cold water shock still poses a threat


When Centralia teen Zachary Lee Rager swam in a chilly river on a warm spring day in 2021, a cooling swim soon turned into tragedy when he suddenly experienced cold water shock and passed away.

That day, the 18-year-old Rager, an experienced swimmer, drowned after jumping from a Willapa Hills Trail railroad trestle bridge into the Chehalis River and suffered cold water shock, a physical response to the sudden immersion into cold water that includes increased heart rate, faster breathing and potentially uncontrolled gasping and movement.

To help educate the public on the dangers of cold water shock, District 20 Rep. Peter Abbarno’s, R-Centralia, sponsored House Bill 1004, dubbed “Zack’s Law,” which requires state and local government agencies to erect signs warning of drowning hazards when replacing or erecting signs near dangerous water areas. The bill also creates 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.

One year after the Washington state Legislature approved HB-1004, Abbarno said the legislation is as important as ever.

“It reminds people of the unseen dangers of cold water shock,” Abbarno said last week. “It’s just really important for people to make sure they know the river, pond, lake that they’re swimming in and to understand the dangers of that and to make sure they don’t swim alone, swim with friends and use caution.”

Since the bill passed, a sign has been installed at the Willapa Hills Trail where Rager lost his life from cold water shock, marking the first installment of informational warning signs from the bill.

“That law was important to our community. It was important to the Rager family, and it’s important to anybody who has kids who use any of the waterways,” Abbarno said. “It’s an important bill to remind people that cold water shock kills people in Washington state and around the country and the world every year.”

Last year at Daybreak Regional Park on the East Fork Lewis River, the water temperature at just ankle depth registered around 55 degrees Fahrenheit while the outside air temperature came in around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to the National Weather Service, “Cold water shock can be just as severe and dangerous from water temperatures of 50 to 60 [degrees Fahrenheit] (10 to15 degrees Celsius) as it is from water at 35 [degrees Fahrenheit] (2 degrees Celsius). Gasping for a breath or rapid breathing from sudden immersion can be triggered by water as warm as 77 [degrees Fahrenheit] (25 degrees Celsius),” the National Weather Service states.

“Oftentimes in cold water shock we see your muscles start to tense up. You have a lot less endurance, and you can have some respiratory spasming where it makes it feel hard to breathe,” Maddie Pearl, with Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, told the Reflector last year. “Especially in these spring seasons, it doesn’t take long for you to start to feel hypothermic in these cold waters.”