'She Died in My Arms': A Mother's Mission for Safe Pools

Despite a new federal law that takes effect later this year, an ABC News undercover investigation found many hotels and public pools across the country have yet to install safety drain covers and shut-off valves designed to prevent children from being trapped underwater by the powerful suction of pool filter systems.

Many of the drain covers inspected by ABC News in pools across the country are "death traps," according to Paul Pennington, spokesman for the Pool Safety Consortium, an industry group, and president of a company that manufactures anti-entrapment systems.

In December 2007, Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act to provide basic safety standards for the nation's public pools. However, ABC News found that the drains of nearly three-quarters of sampled public pools throughout the country are still not safe. The new legislation requires all public pools to install the devices by December 20 or face fines up to $1.3 million.

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The new law is named after Virginia Graeme Baker, the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, and was pushed through Congress after her death in 2002.

The 7-year old girl died in the arms of her mother, after sitting on the underwater floor drain of a hot tub connected to a friend's pool.

"I kept pulling at her, never understanding what was holding her down and I couldn't pull her off," said her mother, Nancy Baker. "I opened my eyes underwater and there aren't words to describe what this is like," she said.

pool drain

The suction pressure holding her daughter down was later estimated at 700 pounds, she said.

"I really wish it wasn't my daughter. But when she died it moved from the back pages of the newspaper to the front pages of the newspaper," Baker said.

Baker told ABC News it took all the political clout of her distinguished father-in-law and five years of lobbying effort to overcome pool industry resistance to a law requiring dome-shaped drain covers and pump valve releases. The dome shape prevents a child's body from creating a kind of vacuum seal.

Bill Weber, the president of Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP), said that the APSP "worked very hard in support of" the passage of the Graeme Baker Act "from the very beginning."

But Baker said the group did nothing to help get the law passed and she was outraged when Weber asked her "if she was happy" after the vote in Congress.

In a letter to Weber, Baker said he showed "a degree of ignorance and insensitivity regarding the circumstances which had me in that room in the first place. My involvement in this issue began with my drowned daughter in my arms and wherever this ends, it will never, ever be a 'happy' result."

Weber responded by saying that his organization has extended its support to the Baker family by helping to ensure the law's implementation.

With only five months left before public pools must install the new devices, an ABC News investigation found few public pools or motels in compliance.

ABC News and our affiliates, WFTV in Orlando, KGO in San Francisco and KGTV in San Diego, found that sixteen of twenty-three hotel pools across the country would not be compliant with the Graeme Baker Act's safety standards.

Some instances were particularly dangerous. In the New York area, interns at the ABC News Investigative Unit found only three of nine motels checked had installed the new drains.

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