The Lake of the Ozarks is a summer getaway for many Missouri families. While the fun and sun are what first come to mind, the reality of danger became evident last summer after three tragic deaths.
Among them were two children, Alexandra and Brayden Anderson of Ashland.
The siblings were swimming together next to their family’s dock when they were shocked by an electric current and drowned.
It happened again a few days later, killing Jennifer Lankford, 26, of Hazelwood. She was swimming at a different dock when she was shocked and drowned.
It’s something ABC 17 News found out could happen at thousands of docks at the Lake. Now, with Memorial Day just weeks away and the summer season ready to begin, ABC 17’s Hanna Mordoh set out to learn if the Lake of the Ozarks is a safer place than it was last summer. She looked into the current regulations and sat down with the Anderson family.
Since last year’s electrical accidents, no regulations to docks have been changed. That means about 90 percent of the docks on the Lake of the Ozarks are still not inspected and never have to be.
Of the docks that do get inspected, around 75 percent do not pass.
The reason is because most docks were grandfathered in when Ameren Missouri – the company which owns the lakefront – changed the codes back in 2006.
While awareness about the dangers has increased and more docks have been inspected, there is still a long way to go.
“They were doing something that they enjoyed doing, that they loved doing, that they had done hundreds of times before,” said Alexandra and Brayden’s mother, Angela Anderson. “There was a loud scream and they were gone.”
It’s a sudden and unimaginable sadness that no parent should ever have to face. The Andersons went to the Lake to celebrate the Fourth of July, just as they had done many times before.
“We have had the house since February of 97,” said Anderson. “The kids grew up there in the summer time pretty much.”
The children woke up that morning and wanted to swim, so Angela and her husband, Brian, helped them put on their life vests and sunscreen. But what started as a normal day ended as a nightmare.
“We pulled them out of the water and I was doing CPR on Brayden and Brian was doing it on Alexandra and we had some neighbors helping us,” Anderson recalled.
While everyone did what they could, it was simply too late.
“Before our eyes, Brian and I watched Alexandra and Brayden die, as we and others desperately tried to save them,” said Anderson.
Electricity somehow went into the water near the dock, but the reason why is still unknown. Although the dock had ground fault interrupters on the outlets and was up to the old code regulations, it was missing a ground fault interrupter at the front of the dock.
“We learned what happened to them has become known across the United States as electric shock drowning,” said Anderson.
The next day, Ameren Missouri put a message on the Anderson’s dock stating they needed to bring it up to a new code. It was a code the family didn’t even know they were supposed to be following.
“We have had a program in place since 2006 and a partnership with the fire districts where they enforce electrical codes on all new docks and modifications,” said Ameren Missouri shoreline supervisor Jeff Green.
However, docks built before 2006 do not have to be inspected but are still required to be safe.
“There’s no such thing as a grandfathered, electrically unsafe dock,” said Green. “That dock owner is responsible for maintaining that dock even if it is prior to the new codes and electrical standards.”
But did Ameren make it clear to old dock owners what should be done?
The Andersons said they did not know about it, but Ameren said they were “very public” about changes to dock policy and they communicated it universally.
The new regulations set by Ameren said all docks should be up to the national electric code. There are 25 requirements on an inspection sheet for a dock to pass.
Most importantly is the ground fault interrupter, or GFI, at the front of the dock. After that, a ground rod is critical so electricity does not flow into the water.
That is something dock owners say could happen at most lake homes.
“Something like that, electric shock, that could happen to anybody,” said dock owner Bill Martin.
Neighboring dock owners said they too did not know about the regulations.
“We bought it like this,” said Martin. “It had the dock permit, so it wasn’t ever re-inspected or anything.”
Bill Martin’s dock has been on the lake for decades and he has even had a close call in the past.
“When I reached in to get a fish one day, I got tingled,” he said.
He rewired the dock after Alexandra and Brayden died only feet away, but he said before that, he had no idea about the potential dangers.
Just a few days later, 26-year-old Jennifer Lankford died at a different dock. Ameren then sent out a letter to everyone on the lake informing dock owners it was their responsibility to keep their docks up to code.
When asked why so few docks have been brought up to code, Osage Beach Fire District Fire Marshal Ed Nicholson said, “Most people are unaware of it. They are not here all the time and they don’t hear the message from us.”
However, since the three deaths in 2012, phone calls have started to pour in for dock inspections.
“I think literally thousands of docks last summer were inspected and upgraded,” said Jeff Green of Ameren.
Firefighters who have been completing the inspections told ABC 17 News they have been pushing education and even offering to work for free.
“Annually, each fire district gets a couple hundred applications they are inspecting a year,” said Mid-County Fire Protection District Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Chris Bachman.
“I did a subdivision inspection, they had 64 docks,” said Nicholson. “I did inspection on all of them and 74 percent did not pass inspection. I would say that’s pretty typical of the whole lake area.”
Since the tragedy on the docks nearly one year ago, the question still remains if the Lake of the Ozarks has become safer.
“There are around 25,000 docks in the Lake area and probably we have only looked at maybe ten percent of the docks,” said Nicholson.
That means there is 90 percent of the Lake that could still be at risk, plus a large portion of it has no building codes and no rules for docks.
“Thirty-two percent of those docks are in areas where there is currently no enforcement of the program,” said Nicholson.
“Which they have no code adopted by any governmental agency and they have no inspectors to go out and look at those docks,” added Bachman.
The Andersons’ lake house falls into that category. It is in an area where no one is making sure that nearly 8,000 docks are protected. But even in the other districts, no one is proactively looking for dangers.
“It’s up to the dock owners right now,” said Osage Beach Fire District’s Ed Nicholson. “There is nothing in place. No ordinance or statute that says they have to do it.”
“As far as a proactive going out there, making sure that everybody is testing their GFCIs or making sure that ground rods are properly bonded, that’s not happening,” said Amenen’s Jeff Green. “That’s crucial for property owners to do.”
If the property owner doesn’t, then the only way for a fire department or Ameren to intervene on a grandfathered dock is if they find out it might put lives in danger.
“We absolutely will cut power where there is a threat to life safety,” said Green.
The problem is if Ameren does not find out, everyone still shares the lake. If one dock is unsafe, anyone around is in jeopardy of being shocked.
“Current can travel from one dock to another dock,” said Bachman. “If it is leaking, it depends on how many amps are in the water, but if it is leaking power into the water, yes that potential is there for [getting shocked].”
So can anything be done before someone else is hurt or killed?
“The only way you are going to hit the entire Lake of the Ozarks is if something happens at the county or state level that would require that,” Bachman said.
While nothing has happened yet, many are wondering if something should.
“Brian and I will be moving forward with ensuring that safety procedures are in place so people recognize the dangers,” said Angela Anderson.
As things stand now, the question remains: Are we going into this summer safer than last year?
“I think absolutely we are,” said Bachman. “Every day we are out doing dock inspections, that’s one less dock we feel is a hazard on the lake.”
“It will be a lot safer this summer because a lot more people are aware,” added Nicholson.
While dock safety is slowly improving, the Andersons hope a tragedy as terrible as theirs will never happen to anyone else.
“It didn’t have to happen,” said Angela. “That waters are safe around docks in the state of Missouri in honor of Alexandra and Brayden.”
Fire departments told ABC 17 News that docks should be inspected annually. At this point, no laws or regulations have changed when it comes to dock safety.
Ameren will be sending a letter to all dock owners at the end of May explaining safety precautions. They also have detailed instructions on their website of how to keep a dock safe and up to current code.
There is a fire inspection checklist, so dock owners can be sure their docks pass inspection.
Ameren will be holding a seminar for electricians at Tan-Tar-A Resort. For more information, contact the company.