Rep. Abbarno to introduce ‘Zack’s Law’ for 2022 session; Warning signs along waterways seek to educate, prevent cold-water shock drownings

Zachary Lee Rager had jumped several times from the train trestle on the Willapa Hills Trail into the Chehalis River during the summer months. When he did it again on March 23, 2021, the 18-year-old from Centralia didn’t realize how cold the water would be at that time of year. Despite the efforts of his friends to rescue him, Zack suffered cold-water shock and drowned.

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter Abbarno gathered with Rager’s family and other local officials at the old railroad bridge on the Willapa Hills Trail near Chehalis to announce pending legislation intended to prevent cold-water shock drownings.

“In December, I will pre-file legislation for the 2022 legislative session to help prevent drownings by bringing attention to cold-water shock. We’re calling it ‘Zack’s Law,’ in honor and memory of Zack Rager. It would require state government agencies and local governments to erect signs addressing drowning hazards when replacing signs or erecting signs near dangerous water hazards,” said Abbarno, R-Centralia. “Zack’s Law would also create a mechanism for the public to donate funds to the state for the specific purpose of erecting signs in locations known to attract people to what could be hazardous waterways.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the body responds to cold-water immersion with an increased heartbeat and blood pressure, faster breathing, uncontrolled gasping, and sometimes uncontrolled movement. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes, the cold-shock response can be deadly by itself. Victims may panic, take on water in that first uncontrolled gasp, and as many as 20% die in the first two minutes. An average of 200 people die each year because of cold-water immersion.

“Many people really don’t know or understand the seriousness of cold-water shock. Even on a warm, sunny day in the spring or fall in the Pacific Northwest, an experienced swimmer may be unaware of the danger cold-water shock can have on their body. This legislation seeks to change that by educating, informing, and warning people about the risk of diving or jumping into cold water. It’s about saving lives,” said Abbarno. “Zack’s accident was entirely preventable and a tragedy for this young man and his family. Had Zack known about the frigid water and its dangers, he might still be alive today. With proper signage at these locations, other families might not have to suffer a similar loss.”

The bill also directs the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to install a sign in memory of Zachary Lee Rager on or near the Willapa Hills Trail railroad bridge that provides information about the hazards of cold-water shock.

Zack’s stepfather, Lee Hines, says after initial search and rescue efforts, he and his family organized further search and rescue teams, including volunteer divers, to find his lost son.

“It involved cadaver dogs, drones, and boats with sonar. We put together as many resources as we could with volunteers and help from the community. We spent an entire month searching at the river before finding our son. It was rough. No one should have to do that,” said Hines.

“My son was an all-around amazing kid. He did everything he could to help everybody. After learning how many lives he touched, we knew we had to keep doing something for him to continue touching other lives and making a difference. If this means his loss is saving somebody else’s life, that’s what we are pursuing,” added Hines.

Abbarno doesn’t expect the bill to have significant fiscal costs since most signs would be erected at the same time upgrades are made to bridges and other water-adjacent infrastructure.

The 2022 legislative session begins Jan. 10.

Photos of Zachary Lee Rager – Courtesy of Lee Hines and family.


Washington State House Republican Communications