Middleton family, lawmakers help draft 'Lina's Law'

Legislation would require life jacket, helmet for rafters

Published On: May 15 2013 09:57:14 PM CDT   Updated On: May 15 2013 11:11:39 PM CDT
MIDDLETON, Wis. -

Whitewater rafting in Wisconsin can be fun, but a WISC-TV investigation revealed it can be dangerous, too.

Now state lawmakers are drafting a bill that would protect rafters.

In February, News 3 reported about the lack of measures regulating the rafting industry, which includes nothing that even makes someone wear a life jacket. That got the attention of two representatives who want to make sure what happened to Middleton-native Lina Vergara never happens again.

Vergara died last July rafting on the Wolf River. It was running high due to heavy rains. The rapids at Smokey Falls knocked the 20-year-old from her raft and popped the life jacket she was wearing off her body.

Over the weekend, her family and friends hosted a 5k race at Middleton’s Orchid Park in her honor.

"We couldn’t be here without you guys and it’s just amazing and I want to say thank you so much,” said Lina's brother, Juan Vergara. He addressed the crowd of nearly 400 participants.

The News 3 investigation also uncovered there isn’t a state law that requires rafters wear life jackets. The company Lina and her friend rented from doesn’t require jackets, either. Shotgun Eddy's only has its customers sign a waiver that acknowledges the river's risks.

The Department of Natural Resources documents boating deaths, but the nonprofit, American Whitewater, is the only group recording rafting fatalities and injuries, plus it publishes a river rating system. It lists three rafters who died last year in Wisconsin, including Lina.

At the 5k race, Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, who, like Lina, is from Middleton and is a UW-Oshkosh graduate.

"Let's make sure that the next person that goes whitewater rafting does everything right and everything legal, but that the protections are there,” Hesselbein, a Democrat from the 79th Assembly District, said.

After the News 3 story aired, she started drafting "Lina's Law" that would require rafters wear a helmet and a type-five life jacket, which the United States Coast Guard describes as a "special-use" device.

"All they'd have to do is look at the footage you've created and talk to Lina’s family to realize one death is too many, especially when it can be prevented,” said Hesselbein.

Like the lawmaker, Lina’s family and friends aren’t putting the past behind them.

"I promised not to cry this time, but I love her," said Lina’s mother, Margarita Vergara as she cheered for runners at the race.

The group is instead moving forward in Lina’s name to ensure the rafting industry is regulated.

"Wisconsin is a wonderful state with a lot of outdoor activities,” said Lina’s father, Alejandro Vergara. “Let’s make sure our people and our kids can do that safely.”

The people who knew Lina say if “Lina’s Law” crosses the proverbial finish line, it would turn a dark day into a bright one, like Lina did.

“We’re grateful for everybody that’s helping us continue to get this law into motion to make a difference, make a change,” said Coni Vergara Duhr, Lina’s sister.

Hesselbein and co-author Rep. Melissa Sargeant are working to drum up Republican support for “Lina’s Law” and plan to introduce it this summer. Disobeying it would result in a fine, like when drivers are ticketed for not wearing a seat belt.

Registration fees at the 5k called Glowing Smiles funded a scholarship in Lina’s name. It’s already helped two students at UW-Oshkosh where Lina was studying elementary education.

To learn more about Lina’s story, the legislation and how to help, click here.