At 8 a.m. on April 14, 2016, Shelly Darling told her husband she was going to sunbathe that day in the family lake house. He later told police that was the last time he saw her alive.
As AL.com reports, Darling and her friend, 41-year-old Elizabeth Whipple, both employees of the legal clinic at the University of Alabama, headed out to a dock over Lake Tuscaloosa in Alabama. But when the two failed to show up for dinner later that evening, their families grew concerned.
Capt. Kip Hart with the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit, when they became more and more worried, Darling’s family went to the dock to check on the women. Their belongings were still there, but the two of them were gone.
The family called Tuscaloosa police, who then notified the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit about a possible drowning in the area right after midnight.
A search of the lake ensued, and at 4:30 a.m. both of their bodies were discovered in the lake by divers. According to Capt. Hart, foul play is not suspected.
During a press conference, Capt. Hart told reporters that while investigators are not “100 percent sure” what caused the women’s deaths, they do know that electricity was running through part of the pier because an officer received a shock from the water. He told reporters:
“We’re waiting on the full report from the medical examiner to determine exactly what happened.”
Just a year prior, the sudden death of 15-year-old Carmen Jonson on Alabama’s Smith Lake rocked the community of Priceville after her death from ESD.
— Courtney Crown (@CourtCrownWHNT) April 20, 2016
She jumped off a dock with a friend when her father lowered a metal ladder into the water to help the girls get out, it introduced an electric current in the lake. The family believed the water filled an electrical box nearby and sent a charge through the metal on the dock. When the latter was lowered, it introduced that current to the water.
As Boating Mag explains, ESD is a “freshwater phenomenon,” as freshwater is highly resistant to electricity. When an electrical current is flowing through fresh water, it will look for the path of least resistance, such as the human body. Salt water, on the other hand, is more conductive than freshwater so an electrical flow in the water will be carried around the person.
— WSOCTV (@wsoctv) July 19, 2016
In cases of ESD, the current passing through a person is enough to cause muscle paralysis, drowning and death. Johnson’s father, Jimmy, said he felt “indescribable” pain when he jumped into the water to rescue his daughter after she was shocked.
Johnson’s family spoke to Independent Journal Review shortly after their daughter’s death about the need for keeping docks with any power sources up to code and the importance of installing a Dock Lifeguard monitor, which sets off an alarm if it detects an electrical current on a dock or in the water.
— Doug Low (@HelmSafe) July 27, 2015
IJR reached out to the Johnsons again for comment following the possible electric shock drowning deaths of Shelly Darling and Elizabeth Whipple. They offered their condolences to the two families, saying in part:
“Our lives have been forever changed. We miss our Carmen so much. Our goal now is to help prevent this from happening to others. So it was so sad to see this happen again and for two other families to go through what we have and are going through. Our prayers go out to them.”
The Johnsons, distributors of Dock Lifeguard, also offered tips for how to keep docks safe [emphasis added]:
“First, have your wiring checked and make sure your ground fault breaker is working. We have installed one at end of our dock and a power shut off at end of our dock. The weather and movements of the docks can cause your wiring to become faulty or worn at anytime. I have noticed a lot of new docks being built with aluminum and this is very dangerous. I also suggest wood or plastic ladders. It was our metal ladder that transferred the electricity into the water. Also if people start feeling like something is going on or they could be getting electrocuted to swim away from the dock not to the dock and make sure someone cuts the power off.”
They reiterated the importance of routine dock inspections and acquiring a Dock Lifeguard monitor.
As previously reported by IJR, in addition to the extreme caution boat and dock owners must practice, one of the best ways for swimmers to avoid ESD is to never swim within 100 yards of a dock, boatyard, or marina.
As for the official cause of death of Darling and Whipple, a medical examiner is expected to deliver a report soon.