Kara Cvechko recalled her heart pounding as she scrambled headfirst down into an outdoor grease pit to save her 5-year-old daughter who had fallen through an unsecured opening at a Charleston restaurant.
Kambria Cvechko’s birthday celebration turned to horror on Nov. 11 when she stepped on the loose lid and fell through. Submerged in grease, she was eventually pulled out.
“You see an accident and your mom instincts just kick in,” Cvechko said.
It was at least the fourth such incident involving a child falling into a grease pit nationwide since 2017. Two of them were fatal.
Now, legislation is moving through the Legislature to toughen fines for restaurants that fail to secure the lids of those collection pits. The state Senate passed a bill on a 33-0 vote Tuesday that would increase fines from $5 to $50 for each day that a restaurant fails to comply. It now goes to the House of Delegates.
The outdoor grease pits would be required to have locked manhole covers designed to withstand loads and prevent access by children.
“We need to take every measure possible to ensure the public’s safety,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Glenn Jeffries, a Putnam County Democrat.
Cvechko said she would also like to see other states pass similar laws.
She and her family were leaving a Charleston restaurant when Kambria and other children ran to play on a grassy area. When Cvechko told the children to come to the car, Kambria unknowingly walked across the pit’s lid, which flipped like a teeter-totter, sending her through the narrow opening.
Screaming for help, Kara Cvechko scurried down the hole headfirst as two other children anchored her feet. She could hear her daughter gasping for air.
“The smell is something I can’t even describe,” Cvechko said. “I really thought it was raw sewage.”
The substance was so slick that it required her holding onto her daughter’s arm with both of her own arms, “and she was still slipping.”
“I was just really scared and overwhelmed at the whole situation.”
Eventually, Kambria was lifted to the surface. She underwent X-rays at a hospital and was treated for a few cuts, but otherwise was fine.
Outdoor grease tanks can hold hundreds of gallons and are designed to keep used oil and grease out of sewer systems. Cvechko said she later found out that the restaurant’s grease pit had been recently cleaned and wasn’t completely full of sludge.
Cvechko said the screws on the pit’s lid had been removed and were not secured. The pit’s flat green cover resembled a 2-foot plastic disc and wasn’t readily noticeable.
“They should be more visible to where people know they are there,” she said.
In 2015, a 2-year-old boy in Greenbrier County died after falling into a tank used for spent cooking grease outside a car wash. The tank’s lid had been removed.
In 2017, a 3-year-old girl drowned after falling into a grease pit in Auburn, Alabama, and a 3-year-old boy died in a similar accident last July in Rochester, New York.
Cvechko said her daughter’s experience has kept her family on alert.
“We just went on a trip and it made her very aware of her surroundings, and I as well, to see if there was anything I had to warn my kids about,” Cvechko said.