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Survivor warns more pool drain entrapments could happen
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

Alex and Amy Martinez of St. Charles talk about Alex's pool accident when he was a boy.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Bruises cover the back of Alex Martinez, then 11, who was trapped against a pool drain cover and nearly drowned at a public pool in Wheaton eight years ago.


Courtesy Martinez Family

Alex and Amy Martinez of St. Charles talk about Alex's pool accident when he was a boy. Strong suction held him against a pool drain grate, nearly drowning him.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Alex and Amy Martinez of St. Charles talk about Alex's pool accident when he was a boy. Strong suction held him against a pool drain grate, nearly drowning him.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/2/2010 10:40 PM

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Alex Martinez was 11 when he almost died.

He and his little brother were swimming in the pool at a Wheaton health club. The pair had been playing on the water slide while their mother Amy read a book on the pool deck.

Alex noticed the current that pulled him toward the wall when he came off the slide and headed toward the ladder, but he didn't think it was dangerous. He was wrong.

After splashing down from the slide one more time and swimming underwater to get to the ladder, the boy felt the current get stronger and suck him tightly against a drainage grate in the pool wall. Completely submerged and unable to free himself, Alex tried to get anyone's attention. Even the lifeguard on duty, sitting almost right over Alex's flailing arms, didn't notice until it was nearly too late.

"I actually was praying and I was thinking that I wanted to do stuff with my life," the now-19-year-old college student from St. Charles said. "My natural instinct was to put my hand in the air, but no one saw it and I stopped moving."

Amy Martinez remembers hearing the splashing get louder, but when she looked up from her book she didn't see anything unusual.

"I heard these bloodcurdling screams and then there was more chaos and then within 30 seconds they plopped my son's body on the side of the pool," she recalled. "How do you go from being a kid on a water slide to half dead on the side of the pool?"

It turns out that it was actually pretty easy for that to happen, and surprisingly not that uncommon.

Amy Martinez said she learned a worker at the pool had decided the water pressure to the slide was too low - the result of someone accidentally forgetting to remove a plug connecting a drain and one of the two pumps - and turned up the other pump.

The increased suction created by the working pump was enough to pull Alex against the grate and keep him there, his mom said. The force was enough to cause compression fractures to his spine. His back was completely covered in bruises.

"The grate had snapped and the pump was trying to bend me into the hole," he said.

A woman used her fingernail to break the vacuum seal between the grate and Alex's back so he could be rescued, his mom said.

Alex has almost completely healed physically, but it took months of physical therapy following the incident.

"I try not to think about it still," he said. "I would have dreams about being underwater. It did scare me away from the pool for quite some time after the event."

His mother still gets teary-eyed when she talks about it. And she gets even more upset when she learns that a 2-year-old federal law aimed at preventing pool drain entrapments is largely going unheeded in Illinois.

A joint investigation by the Daily Herald and ABC 7 revealed that operators of more than half the 1,910 public pools that require modifications have made no effort to comply with the 2008 Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, yet the state continues to allow them to operate. The federal law requires anti-suction pool drain covers and pressure release valves on some water pumps.

Alex's accident occurred before the new federal standards went into effect. The DuPage County Health Department lists the pool at the health club as complying with the new safety law,

"What happened to Alex was so preventable it makes you so frustrated and mad," Amy Martinez said. "It's horrifying that it happened to my family, but what's sad is it's going to happen again."

Management of the health club did not return calls seeking comment about the incident and the facility's response.

The Martinez family settled a lawsuit against the operators of the facility out of court and the details were kept confidential.

Amy Martinez wants to use her son's tale to spur other parents to be aware of the dangers of pools.

"Tell your kids to be careful around drains," she said. "Alex wasn't playing with one and it got him. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing: being a kid and playing."