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Spa Nearly Claims Boy’s Life : Hazard: Ex-Ram Greg Meisner rescues and resuscitates his son after 6-year-old is caught by suction of recirculation drain. He and officials warn that other users of older spas could face same danger.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 6-year-old son of former Ram player Greg Meisner almost drowned in the family’s back-yard spa when suction from the spa’s drain held the boy underwater until his father managed to wrench him free.

The muscular, 270-pound retired defensive end, who also played for the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants, said Wednesday that it took all his might to hoist Greg Jr., who had stopped breathing by the time he was lifted to the surface.

Authorities credited Meisner with using cardiopulmonary resuscitation to save his son. The boy spent Tuesday night at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and went home Wednesday with a bruise 10 inches in diameter on his back, marking the spot where the spa drain had caught hold of him. The drain allows water in the spa to be reheated before recirculating through the spa jets.

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Meisner, still shaken Wednesday, said he wants to make other parents aware of the potential hazard with older-style spas such as his that were built with high-pressure, single-outlet drains.

“I wish I could just reach out and touch one family and let them know the danger of what I experienced and how fortunate and blessed we were,” he said.

Building inspectors, spa industry officials and consumer-affairs advocates said they also hope the Meisner family’s experience will alert other parents that older spas pose a special safety problem.

“Beware of any spa built before 1976,” said Larry Nees, manager of Orange County’s building inspection division, who said a fatal Orange County accident that year prompted changes in regulations for construction of back-yard spas.

Meisner said he had no idea that Greg Jr. was in any danger when the accident occurred at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. The boy had been showing his 4-year-old brother and a 5-year-old friend how he could float underwater while his father and two other adults were standing about five feet away from the spa, which is attached to a swimming pool.

Meisner said his son was a good swimmer and often liked to hold his breath underwater. But the father said he became concerned when another adult remarked how long the boy had been submerged and expressed worry that he might have suffered a seizure.

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“I jumped in and couldn’t move him. He was stuck and his skin was flat against the drain that was like a vacuum cleaner,” said Meisner, 36, who ended his football career in 1991. “I am a very strong guy and it took me 15 seconds to get him off. My 6-year-old son was now limp and I was scared to death.”

Meisner, who had learned CPR as part of a chiropractor course he had just completed, said he used an abdominal thrust maneuver and held his son upside down, spanking him in the middle of his back, to release the water he had swallowed. Then he started blowing air into his son’s mouth.

“He started to breath. Then he started crying and I said, ‘Daddy is here for you,’ ” Meisner said.

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Mary Marlin, community education manager at Children’s Hospital in Orange, said the boy’s survival shows the importance of watchful parents remaining nearby when children go swimming, and of parents learning CPR.

Marlin said children can’t always call out when they are in trouble, noting that Greg Jr. was unable to speak or to reach for help.

“This is a classic example when a dangerous situation in the water is silent,” Marlin said. A similar accident ended in tragedy in 1976 when 9-year-old Barry Douglas Brunson drowned after he was sucked into the drain of the spa at his family’s home, which also was in Villa Park, Nees said.

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Brunson’s death and other spa tragedies in other parts of the country, Nees said, prompted Orange County and the National Spa and Pool Institute to conduct a series of tests on spa drains. “We had grown men who couldn’t pull themselves off,” he said.

Ultimately, the uniform building and plumbing codes were changed for the design of spa drains. Lee Baxter, regional director of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, said that for the past 15 years all spas have been designed with two drains, rather than one, to reduce the force of suction. Also, he said, the drains must have raised dome covers with tiny outlets to lessen the chance that a body part can become stuck in them.

However, building inspectors say there are plenty of older spas, such as the Meisners’, that were built before the safety modifications and may still have dangerous drains. Nees said that when the county building regulations changed, the county sent notices to everyone who had previously taken out spa building permits, but no upgrading of the spas was required.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission reports that from 1988 to 1995 there were 12 deaths throughout the country caused by hair or other body parts being sucked into the drain of a spa or whirlpool bath.

Some owners of old spas have made them even more dangerous by retrofitting them with stronger pumps to run therapeutic jets, said Cecil Fraser, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Spa and Pool Institute.

The safest solution for owners of single-drain spas, Fraser said, is to install a second drain, at an estimated cost of $500. Other precautions recommended by authorities are to install a power turnoff switch nearby and put safety dome covers on flat drains.

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“You would really like to encourage people to beware,” Fraser said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Spa Safety If you have an older model spa, remember these precautions: Avoid problems with a single drain by installing a second one to disperse suction. Install safety dome on flat drains. Place power switch nearby so it can be quickly reached in emergency. Closely supervise children even if they know how to swim. If you are concerned about a spa’s safety, check with building inspectors. Other advice: National Spa and Pool Institute, Orange County chapter, (714) 832-1113 Sources: County building inspectors, National Spa and Pool Institute, Children’s Hospital of Orange County; Researched by LESLIE BERKMAN / Los Angeles Times

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