LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — A 21-year-old man was killed on Sunday night when, according to authorities, he was electrocuted by a dock as he climbed out of the water.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol says at around 9 p.m. on June 21, Marcus Colburn, of East Moline, Ill., was swimming at a dock in Woods Hollow Cove, at the 22.2 Mile Marker when he and fellow swimmer Taylor Curley felt electricity in the water. The highway patrol reported Colburn tried to get out of the water by using the dock ladder, but when he did so, he was shocked and fell into the water face-down.
MSHP Corporal Scott White said when that happened, someone ran to the shore and shut off the power to the dock. White noted that individual’s actions likely saved Curley from being electrocuted as well.
The Osage Beach Fire Protection District said it was called to the scene at 9:15 p.m., and upon arrival, crews found CPR was being performed on Colburn. The rescue crew took over CPR and Colburn and Curley were both taken by ambulance to Lake Regional Hospital, according to the district.
Curley had minor injuries; Colburn was pronounced dead there at 10:14 p.m.
The fire district confirmed that electric service to the dock in question has been removed to ensure no other problems occur. The issue is still being investigated.
The electrocution comes on the heels of a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that holds Ameren UE not liable for the electrocution of two children in the Lake in 2012. Following that incident, the children’s mother filed suit against Ameren, claiming the company was liable since it had permitted the dock on the Lake. The court rejected that argument, siding with Ameren; the company claimed it was immune from liability under a Missouri law that grants such immunity to property owners who allow the free, public use of their property for recreational purposes.
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Electrocutions and dock safety have been a hot issue at the Lake in recent years, with at least five electrocution fatalities on the Lake since 2007, and a near-miss last summer that buzzed several swimmers near the 7 Mile Marker.
The challenge with this issue is that electricity can travel significant distances underwater: so a neighbor’s electrified dock 50 yards away could still be a hazard. According to Underwriter Laboratories, a global independent safety science company, electric current travels 2 feet per volt. The standard voltage for dock wiring is 120 volts. Using that formula, electric current can be felt as far away as 240 feet.
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Local fire districts partnered with Ameren in 2006—two years after an Olathe man was killed when he was shocked by a dock cable and fell into the water—to establish a dock inspection program at the Lake of the Ozarks. Ameren estimates there are around 25,000 docks on the Lake of the Ozarks, most of which were installed before 2006. Local fire districts perform inspections and are responsible for certifying a dock as inspected before Ameren will issue a permit; but when the districts were inundated with inspection calls following several fatal or close-call electrocution incidents at the Lake, fire marshals said they found about 75 percent of docks did not comply with the latest set of safety guidelines. Those require GFCIs on all outlets, a shoreline disconnect, properly grounded circuits, and in-use covers on all electrical outlets.
Since then, Ameren has cracked down on dock permitting requirements, refusing to re-permit a dock that has been sold or transferred until it has been inspected again. Fire districts have gotten on board, but some docks could still slip through the cracks. For example, in the Osage Beach Fire Protection District, docks covered by district ordinances (and thus subject to codes) are those docks which are new as of 2006; the only time a pre-2006 dock is subject to inspection is when it is sold, transferred, moved, or has any update or work performed on its electrical system.
Last summer, swimmers at the 7 Mile Marker felt a tingle in the water on the morning of July 4. When an electrician came to diagnose the issue, he discovered that a dock ramp about 100 yards away was sending voltage into the water. The ramp was not connected to a dock—that dock had been sold and relocated. But the electrician reported the main electrical feed from the house’s breaker box had simply been wrapped around the dock rail. He said that wire had not been disconnected from the main service panel, and speculated that the breaker for it had been simply switched off when the dock was sold, but that someone had turned it on since then. Such a seemingly small error could have been fatal if the swimmers had been closer.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — It could have been fatal.
If a dock doesn’t pass muster, Lake Ozark Fire Chief Mark Amsinger explains that his district will recommend changes to the dock owner. It then falls to the dock owner to make those changes; if he or she opts not to, Amsinger said the district can turn the issue over to Ameren, notifying the company that the dock is unsafe. Ameren can then revoke the dock’s permit and begin the tedious process of removing it.
Amsinger said there is not currently any law that requires docks to be inspected on a regular basis; he pointed out that with 25,000 docks on the Lake of the Ozarks, local districts could never manage such a task without bringing on an enormous staff.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol is still investigating Sunday night’s death, and White points out that the cause of death has not been officially determined—though the highway patrol’s report categorizes the incident as “electrical shock.”
Local electricians often offer free dock inspections. Here are some tips for dock-owners and anyone swimming in the Lake:
- Ask neighbors if they shut off their dock power when they are not at their Lake home
- If you feel current in the water, don’t swim toward a dock. Make sure the power is turned off on your dock before approaching it from the water.
- Check your GFCI protection often
- Call a reputable company or your fire district to inspect your dock