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Murky water hindered search for man who died in hotel pool
City fire and health departments investigating death at a Quality Inn & Suites hotel with history of pool violations and cloudy water.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Pavan Dhanireddy remembers frantically peering into the swimming pool at the Quality Inn & Suites Seattle Center on June 30 as firefighters searched for his friend Tesfaye Girma Deboch.
The water was so murky no one could see the bottom of the indoor pool. Firefighters used a rescue hook and thermal imaging to search the water, but eventually left, certain that Deboch had left the pool area.
It wasn’t until nearly three hours later that the body of Deboch, a 27-year-old Washington State University student, was pulled from the murky water.
The Seattle Fire Department is reviewing the incident to determine whether the response to the incident could call for revisions to its water-rescue procedures, according to a statement released by spokesman Kyle Moore. Public Health — Seattle & King County, which says the pool should not have been open given the murkiness of the water, has launched its own investigation.
Just over a month earlier, health inspectors had closed the pool when an inspection revealed the water had no chlorine and was cloudy and hazy, said James Apa, spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County. It was reopened two days later after hotel management corrected the problem.
“If you can’t see the drain at the bottom of the pool it’s your responsibility to self-close,” Apa said. “We can’t be there every day and every moment, so the owner and manager has the responsibility of checking for this.”
The manager of the Quality Inn & Suites Seattle Center, a franchised hotel, declined to comment on the incident Thursday.
Dhanireddy, Deboch and 12 other graduate students from WSU’s School of Economic Sciences were in Seattle June 30 to attend the Western Economics Association International Conference, according to Dhanireddy.
Around 5:30 p.m., Deboch was swimming at the deep end of the pool while Dhanireddy was in the shallow end because he couldn’t swim. Dhanireddy described Deboch as a decent swimmer. The pool has a maximum depth of 8 feet.
Minutes later, Dhanireddy saw Deboch splashing and flailing his hands frantically for help and realized he was drowning.
Dhanireddy ran to the front desk for help.
“I was asking, ‘Please help my friend,’ ” Dhanireddy said Thursday.
The first call for help came in at 5:35 p.m., according to the fire department’s 911 log. However, when firefighters conducted a grid search of the pool using a rescue hook and thermal-imaging camera they were unable to find Deboch, according to the department’s statement.
Dhanireddy said no one actually went in the pool to search for his friend.
“There were a lot of chemicals and you couldn’t see the bottom of the pool,” he said. “We were trying to see the body and we couldn’t see anything.”
After a search of the entire pool, officials decided Deboch had left the pool and hotel, and declared him missing even though his shoes, shirt, wallet and phone were still near the pool, according to Dhanireddy. Firefighters and police also searched Deboch’s hotel room, according to the fire department.
Another friend, Ryan Bain, arrived at the hotel about a half-hour after Deboch was declared missing, according to a report in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
Bain told the newspaper that he and his friends were allowed to view security-camera footage of the lobby, which included a limited view of the pool. The footage did not show Deboch leaving the pool area.
He said they also called nearby hospitals, looking for Deboch. When they couldn’t find him they determined he must still be in the pool.
“I just had a horrible, sinking, sick feeling,” Bain told the Daily News.
Bain and the others began searching the pool again with the pole. A retired firefighter sitting nearby heard about the situation, and asked the people still swimming in the pool to leave.
Bain said the retired firefighter realized that a rescue pole was too short to reach the bottom of the pool's deep end, so he attached a squeegee to the end and searched again. Shortly after, the man felt the pole touch something at the bottom of the pool.
They pulled Deboch out of the pool and began CPR.
Firefighters were summoned back to the hotel at 8:12 p.m. and continued CPR but Deboch “did not respond to any lifesaving efforts,” according to the fire department’s statement.
“Since it is now clear that the drowning victim was in the pool during the earlier search, the department is reviewing the incident and will determine whether to revise any water rescue procedures,” according to the department’s statement.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Deboch drowned.
Dhanireddy described Deboch, an Ethiopian native, as a smart and friendly person with lots of friends. He said Deboch was to start his fourth and final year in the Ph.D. program at WSU this fall.
He had taught a combination of macroeconomics, money and banking and mathematics courses and was pursuing a master’s in statistics.
A memorial service will be held for Deboch at 3 p.m. Friday in the Ensminger Pavilion at WSU. The school is also starting a scholarship fund in his name.
Apa, the spokesman for the health district, said inspectors plan to look more closely at the hotel’s pool in light of the drowning and earlier problems.
On May 23, 2012, inspectors closed the pool for having chlorine levels at 20 ppm, twice the acceptable limit, according to the inspection report. The water was also found to be cloudy-looking.
Officials reopened the pool on July 26, 2012. The chlorine level then was 0.5 ppm off the required 1.5 ppm minimum level, but that didn’t warrant closing the pool, Apa said.
The most recent regular inspection of the pool occurred on May 28, when the department closed the pool because there was no chlorine in the water. The report also said the water was cloudy and hazy, the handrails weren’t secure and the chemical storage area wasn’t locked properly.
It reopened two days later after hotel management called to say changes had been made but that they were still working on the chemical balance in the pool; the alkalinity was 50 ppm and should’ve been between 80 and 120 ppm. That didn’t warrant closing the pool, Apa said.
Multiple chemicals are used to treat pool water, and if they’re not properly balanced the water can become cloudy, he said.
But when the department learned of Deboch’s drowning on July 9, officials went to have a look at the pool and on July 10 closed the pool again. This time they cited shower temperatures being too high, emergency shut-offs not operating properly and emergency equipment being blocked by a towel rack. Inspectors again noted the cloudiness of the water.
Drownings in hotel pools are not uncommon, although most involve children. A 5-year-old girl died in June after being pulled from a hotel swimming pool in North Austin, Texas.
Marissa Evans: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Information in this article, originally published on July 12, 2013, has been corrected. In a previous version of this story, the middle name of Tesfaye Girma Deboch was misspelled.