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Originally published July 13, 2012 at 10:03 PM | Page modified July 13, 2012 at 11:00 PM

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Green River death serves as reminder of life-jacket importance

King County public-health and safety officials say this week's death of a 19-year-old man who was swept into the Green River shows the danger of entering the state's rivers without wearing a life jacket.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As swimmers and inner tubers are lured to lakes and rivers by warm weather, King County public-health and safety officials are hoping this summer's life-jacket-education effort prevents more deaths like that of 19-year-old Geoffery Oberbeck of Enumclaw.

Oberbeck, who was not wearing a life jacket, died Monday after wading into the frigid Green River and being swept downstream, said Sgt. Cindi West of the King County Sheriff's Office.

Thousands of fliers about life-jacket availability and safety were sent to homes near King County rivers, and two dozen bright yellow "River is Dangerous" warning signs have been posted along popular river shoreline sites, said Sgt. James Knauss, a member of the King County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit.

Another dozen signs are on the way.

Seattle Parks and Recreation is selling discounted life jackets throughout the summer.

The Saturday sales of $20 jackets for youths and $30 jackets for adults are at Evans Pool at Green Lake from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on July 21, Aug. 18 and Sept. 15.

The website for Seattle Children's hospital offers a 25 percent off coupon for life jackets at Big 5 Sporting Goods stores statewide.

The hope is that the life-jacket-education effort is at least as effective in preventing drowning deaths as the Metropolitan King County Council's experimental ordinance last year, said Knauss.

That ordinance, which expired in October, fined anyone swimming, floating or boating in unincorporated King County rivers without a life jacket, with some exceptions.

"By this time last year, it was the rare person who didn't have (a life jacket) on," Knauss said of those visiting King County rivers. "It took a couple weeks to get the word out, but once the message was out there, people were doing the right thing."

Washington state law requires that a life jacket be available for everyone on a boat, and that children age 12 and under must wear life jackets on vessels under 19 feet long.

But there are no life-jacket requirements for swimmers and inner tubers, even on rivers with rapids.

"A lake is a far safer place than a river," Knauss said. "But for some reason when they're on a river they say, 'Oh, well.' It's never made sense to me."

Knauss said in addition to patrolling river shorelines and getting people to buy or go home and get their life jackets, the marine unit browses social-media websites for events at rivers and then stops by to make sure the crowd has come prepared.

Four girls whose inner tube was popped by a sharp branch in May were saved before drowning near Flaming Geyser State Park, in large part because they were wearing life jackets, he said. One girl's life jacket did pop off, though, because she wasn't wearing it properly.

This year, Knauss says, most swimmers and inner tubers he sees on the rivers on warm days are not wearing life jackets.

On Thursday, Knauss said, a young man inner tubing without a life jacket on the Snoqualmie River was picked up by a boater after he had become too cold to swim to shore, where his other friends had gotten out.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.

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