Woman dies after water-drinking contest

Christina Jewett
McClatchy Newspapers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Contestants in a radio stunt called "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" have revealed new details about an on-air water drinking contest that left a 28-year-old mother of three dead.

Jennifer Lea Strange died after drinking well over a half gallon of water Friday during the "Morning Rave" program on KDND-FM. About 18 contestants vied for a Nintendo Wii gaming console by drinking as much water as they could without going to the bathroom; Strange took second place.

James Ybarra, a Woodland, Calif., man who gave up after drinking eight 8-fluid-ounce bottles of water, or half a gallon, said that Strange kept going.

Most contestants were hoping to get the console for their children, he said. Strange showed contestants photos of her two sons and daughter.

"It is sad that a mother had to lose her life to get something for her kids," he said. "None of us knew this could be a risk to our health."

The Sacramento County Coroner's Office said Saturday that Strange died of apparent water intoxication. A preliminary investigation didn't reveal any "life threatening medical conditions to explain her sudden death."

John Geary, general manager of Entercom Sacramento, which owns KDND, did not return messages left Sunday on his cellular and home phones. In an e-mail message to The Sacramento Bee, he said:

"We were stunned when we heard this news. We are awaiting information that will help explain how this tragic event occurred. Our sympathies are with the family and friends of Jennifer Strange, as they deal with circumstances that are so difficult to comprehend."

Strange's husband, William Strange, 27, said late Sunday he was not ready to discuss his wife's death publicly. He released a photo of his young family, and a brief written statement describing his wife's generous and optimistic nature, and her devotion to her family.

"Friday, Jennifer was just her bright, usual self," he wrote. "She was trying to win something for her family that she thought we would enjoy. ... We miss her dearly. She was my girl."

The death touched a nerve throughout Sacramento and was publicized in news outlets from as far away as Toronto, London and Sydney, Australia.

Gina Sherrod, who competed with Strange in the contest, said her family listened to the radio show, and told her that a nurse was on air warning that drinking too much water is dangerous. Sherrod said a DJ rebuffed the nurse, saying the contestants signed waivers that addressed only publicity issues and made no mention of health or safety concerns.

Sherrod said she had no idea what risk she had taken until she saw news of Strange's death.

"I was so scared," she said. "I had the hardest time going to sleep last night because I was afraid I wouldn't get up."

Sherrod sat near Strange during the contest, which began shortly after 6 a.m. Friday in a break room at the radio station's offices on Madison Avenue.

Contestants had qualified by recounting the worst Christmas gifts they'd received.

Strange told Sherrod her worst gift was a set of flower-shaped champagne flutes wrapped like roses that shattered when she opened them.

Participants were each given 8-fluid-ounce bottles of water. They had two minutes to drink a bottle, waited 10 minutes, then drank another bottle.

The women chatted. Strange told Sherrod she and friends had sixth-row tickets to Friday night's Justin Timberlake concert at Arco Arena.

Sherrod said the contest room was quiet at first, but morning disc jockeys Trish, Maney and Lukas and radio personalities Carter and Fester came in and out of the room, pumping up the participants.

"We did it like we were drinking shots," Sherrod said. "Instead of saying 'cheers' we would say 'Wii' and then shoot it."

Ybarra, the Woodland man, said Fester went outside and sprayed the window with water and turned on a faucet to tempt contestants to use the bathroom.

"As time went by, it got harder to drink those small bottles," Ybarra said.

After contestants drank eight of the 8-fluid-ounce bottles of water, radio staff gave them larger bottles to drink, Ybarra said. That's when he left.

Sherrod drank half of a larger bottle before she ran out of the room and vomited.

"I felt drunk and really out of it," she said.

Sherrod left then. Strange was still a contestant.

"I spent the last hours with that poor woman. I couldn't believe it," Sherrod said.

After the contest, Strange had planned to go to work. She called a co-worker at Radiological Associates, crying. She had a headache and nausea and had to go home, said co-worker Angela Krause. Another employee tried unsuccessfully to reach Strange. She asked Strange's mother to check on her at her Rancho Cordova home. Strange's mother found her daughter dead.

The coroner's office said the final cause of death is not expected for several months.

Water intoxication - or hyponatremia - occurs when sodium levels in blood dip too low.

Two years ago a 21-year-old fraternity pledge at California State University, Chico, died after a night of hazing during which he drank excessive amounts of water. Four members of the fraternity later pleaded guilty to charges including involuntary manslaughter.

Sacramento Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said Sunday that no investigation had been started on the case.

Friday's water drinking contest was not the first in the radio industry. Dave Gross, 46, a landscaper from Victorville in Southern California, said Strange's death brought back bad memories. He won a pool table, bar and bar stools last summer after winning a water drinking contest staged by a local radio station. He became violently ill afterward and wound up in an emergency room.

"When I heard about the woman in Sacramento, it sent a chill over me," Gross said Sunday. "This woman lost her life over a Wii. I could have lost mine over a pool table."

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