On an unusually warm spring day in March 2021, Centralia teen Zachary Rager jumped from the Chehalis River Bridge into the river below. It was something he and his friends had done many times before, but this time it would cost Rager his life.
Despite the heat of the day, the river was still bone-chillingly cold with spring runoff from the mountains. After jumping from the bridge, Rager disappeared under the water. It would be nearly a month before search-and-rescue crews were able to locate his body. Lewis County officials later determined that Rager had died from cold-water shock, a condition that occurs from sudden immersion in cold water that causes muscles to freeze, a loss of breathing control, heart and blood pressure problems and impaired mental ability.
Just months after his death, Rager’s family began working with 20th District lawmakers Rep. Peter Abbarno and Sen. John Braun to pass Zach’s Law, a bill that would require signs to be placed on or near bridges warning of the dangers of cold-water shock.
In an interview Friday, Abbarno said Rager’s death was especially difficult for his hometown of Centralia.
“A lot of community members talked to me about this. The family talked to me,” Abbarno said. “But maybe even more importantly, I have young kids: I have a 10-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, and I can only imagine the heartbreak that this family has gone through. If there’s something simple you can do to at least get (people) to have a second thought, a pause before doing something that could take your life, like cold-water shock drowning, I want to do that.”
Abbarno and Braun, both Republicans, each have bills now moving through the Legislature that are identical to bills they introduced in the 2022 legislative session. On Wednesday, the House Transportation Committee held a public hearing on Abbarno’s House Bill 1004.
Kimberly Hines, Zachary Rager’s mother, was in Olympia to testify before the committee in support of the bill.
“Zach was a pretty special guy. He was loved by all, and he was always the life of any situation,” Hines told the committee. “His smile could turn your frown around. His love for life and our Lord definitely gave him an aura that you couldn’t resist.”
Despite her son being an athlete and a strong swimmer, Hines said, the water that day was unforgiving. Had the family known of the dangers of cold-water shock, she said, she believes her son would have reconsidered jumping off the bridge.
“Does everybody know the water is cold? Of course they do. Does everybody know if your legs start to be numb it’s probably time to get out? Obviously,” she said. “But does everyone know that sudden immersion of your body in water, even up to 60 degrees, can cause cold-water shock? They do not, and this is why we need this bill. We need people to be aware of the dangers.”
Occasionally having to stop and wipe away tears, Hines told the committee her son was the 18th person to die at the Chehalis River Bridge. She said she wants to spare other families the heartbreak her family has endured the last two years.
“I spent 28 days on that river searching and putting together dive teams and land teams to find my son,” she said. “If we can just pass this bill and help save another person, another mother is not going to have to go through what I went through that day and what I still go through daily. We need to educate and save lives, even if it’s just one person we save.”
Abbarno believes his bill has a better chance of passing this year because of the “education we’ve done over the past year on cold-water shock drownings, as well as it’s not hard to just Google search cold-water shock drownings in Washington state and find that it happens all summer long.”
While his bill did make it out of committee last year, Abbarno said, the Legislature just ran out of time during the 2022 short session. To give the bill more time to get through the legislative process this session, he asked for — and received — an early hearing.
Even if the bill never gets passed, Abbarno said, he hopes the attention it has drawn will help educate people about the risks of cold-water shock.
“There’s legislation you introduce that you hope passes and really changes the narrative,” he said. “If this was not one of those, then at least it’s going to be an education piece for the public.”
Braun’s companion measure, Senate Bill 5478, had a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Transportation on Thursday. Both bills will be brought back to their committees for an executive session meeting. Dates for those meetings have not been set.
For more information on cold-water safety, go to www.parks.wa.gov/1070/Cold-Water-Safety.