By Marjorie Nesin
---- — When David Harrison visited Panama in January — nine months after his niece, Caleigh Harrison, vanished from Rockport’s Long Beach last April, he noticed flags were set out on his resort’s beach to notify beach goers of water safety concerns, and he wondered why Cape Ann’s beaches lack this system.
“When I saw that, I realized that a third world country has safety flags for their beach, but we don’t have them in Gloucester or in Massachusetts in general, that just kind of struck a nerve in me,” Harrison said Tuesday. “It’s like this just doesn’t make any sense.”
Harrison and his family members set out contacting state Sen. Bruce Tarr about enacting a similar program in Massachusetts. Tarr wrote up legislation that would allow cities and towns in the state to participate in a program of posting specific and uniform color-coded warning flags at beaches to notify swimmers and beach-goers of water conditions.
The legislation was inspired by the disappearance of Caleigh, the 2 1/2-year-old who disappeared while on an outing with her mother and then-4-year-old sister from Rockport’s Long Beach last April.
The legislation — now called Caleigh’s Law — passed through a hearing with ease Tuesday morning, moving forward to the Senate Ways and Means Committee then the Senate floor for a vote with favorable action from the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
“We feel that it’s a huge step and it makes everything that we’ve been doing real,” Harrison said. “This is probably the best day that we’ve had in over a year, just because of how fast this went through and the support we’ve gotten here...If we can save one other person from this happening to them, then we’ve done good.”
Anthony Harrison, Caleigh’s father, thanked Sen. Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who vice chairs the joint committee that heard the legislation Tuesday for their support and hard work.
“They did a great, great job for us and I know Caleigh is looking down on us right now and she’s smiling,” Harrison said.
The legislators, in turn, applauded the family for its hard work and strength.
“It can be so easy for a family that’s had this tragedy to want to stay home and focus on their loss,” Ferrante said. “This family has focused on their loss but in such a positive way that they want to make sure this doesn’t happen to another person ... making sure that something positive comes out of this tragedy.”
The legislation would require the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to design the flags — which the family hopes to call “Caleigh’s flags” — as well as signage that would explain the meaning of each flag to visitors. Each city or town participating voluntarily would then purchase or create flags and signage to match the design.
Other states, including New Hampshire, New Jersey and Florida already employ a similar safety flag program statewide.
Some Massachusetts cities and towns, like Rockport, use their own flags to alert people of dangerous water conditions. But, Rockport for example, only displays their flags at beaches during the lifeguarding season between July 1 and Labor Day, according to Rockport Police Sgt. Timothy Frithsen.
This legislation would employ a year-round flag system to accommodate beach-goers during every season. Though the flags only can act as a warning, Caleigh’s aunt Catherine Curcuru, who spoke at the hearing Tuesday, said the flags would still act as an opportunity to “pay it forward” to Gloucester’s residents and visitors.
“Not to say that, on April 19, 2012, it would have helped, but maybe the next person that comes along it could help,” Curcuru said.
Tarr is urging his constituents to write to Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo and encourage them to back the legislation too.
“We took a big step, but we’re not going to let off the gas pedal here until this on the Governor’s desk,” Tarr said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.