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Originally published July 15, 2013 at 9:33 PM | Page modified July 16, 2013 at 10:58 AM

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Corrected version

Vacationing firefighter recalls hunt for body in hotel pool

The Texas firefighter was staying at the hotel near Seattle Center and took part in the recovery of a WSU graduate student who drowned in the murky water.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If the hotel is a franchisee, the owners should lose their whole business over this. If... MORE
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Tom Fleming says he felt a “clunk that wouldn’t move” after roughly 10 minutes of dragging the Quality Inn & Suites Seattle Center hotel pool with a pole.

Fleming, a Texas firefighter who was staying at the hotel June 30, joined a group of people who were searching through the murky water for a hotel guest who had been missing for nearly three hours. He recalled the water was so chalky white that he couldn’t see his hand 18 inches below the surface.

Earlier, Seattle firefighters had searched the same pool, using thermal imaging and a rescue hook, but failed to find Tesfaye Girma Deboch. The Washington State University graduate student and instructor was last seen by a friend in the water flailing his hands frantically for help.

After the failed search by firefighters, Deboch’s friends checked his room and local hospitals but found no sign of the 27-year-old. That’s when they returned to the pool, where they were joined by Fleming, 51.

Fleming had noticed the pole initially being used by a hotel employee and Deboch’s friends was too short to reach the bottom of the 8 ½-foot-deep pool. He asked the employee to get a longer cleaning pole, which he used to find Deboch’s body in the deep end of the pool.

Once they pulled him from the pool, it was clear Deboch was dead, Fleming said Monday.

“You could not see (Deboch) until you got him 18 inches to the surface,” Fleming said. “Even I was fishing around and even though he was at the very bottom, he was not always in the same spot. Finding a victim in a pool in that condition is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

The Seattle Fire Department continues to investigate why firefighters did not find Deboch’s body on their initial call to the hotel at 5:35 p.m. that day. They returned at 8:12 p.m. according to 911 call reports, after Deboch had been pulled from the pool.

Hotel management has not commented on the death.

Fleming and at least one other guest say they were in the pool after the Fire Department search and before Deboch’s body was found. Both recalled the water was murky and Fleming noted that the bottom was not visible.

Mylisa Blevins, 21, of Yakima, and her friends were in Seattle that day for Seattle’s annual Pride Parade and were swimming in the pool while they waited for their room shower to be fixed.

“We didn’t see him down there,” Blevins said. “There were kids and a woman there, but we were in the pool for an hour.”

Some people were still swimming while Deboch’s friends conducted their own search, Blevins said. When Fleming joined the effort, he asked everyone to get out of the pool.

Blevins said there was chaos when the guests saw the body being pulled from the pool.

People were screaming as the hotel receptionist called 911 to summon firefighters and police back to the hotel, Blevins said.

Fleming said Deboch’s body was attached to the drain. He asked a hotel employee to turn off the drain; once that happened, they were able to gently push Deboch’s body to the side of the pool and pull him out.

“When Seattle Fire responded the first time, it had been past rescue mode to body recovery mode,” said Fleming, who works for the Cypress Creek Fire Department.

“That water was so bad it wasn’t worth having firefighter go in there and risking exposure to bacteria.”

The hotel pool has been closed since July 10 by Public Health — Seattle & King County, citing the emergency shut-off for the drain was not operating properly and lacking required emergency equipment, according to the inspection report.

James Apa, spokesman for the health department, said the pool pump is supposed to shut off automatically when the drain is blocked. But the emergency shut-off wasn’t working when the department did its most recent inspection.

“You don’t want people to be stuck to the drain and not be able to escape the suction,” he said. “We can’t say a faulty system was a factor in Deboch’s death, but just the fact that the system wasn’t operating on the 10th was reason alone to close the facility.”

The pool has had a history of closures due to its chlorine levels, water murkiness and other issues.

The health department closed the pool May 28 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.

Ryan Robertson, manager of Aqua Quip in Tacoma, said the No. 1 reason that pool water becomes cloudy and milky is a lack of chlorine.

“The most common reason, by far, is that they are not using enough chlorine, especially if the pool is being heavily used,” said Robertson, who is not connected to the case.

A second, far less common cause could be an improperly functioning filtration system, he said.

“This is why commercial accounts have very rigorous pool maintenance schedules,” Robertson said.

Deboch’s family is trying to find answers on what happened that day. He was buried in his native Ethiopia earlier this month.

“We saw the pool and we just wondered how they were not able to find the body the first time,” said Kifle Jikamo, a relative who lives in Spokane. “People were still swimming there even after the first time they came, and it was very frustrating.”

Jikamo said the family is waiting for the investigation to be completed before deciding if they’ll take legal action.

For now, they’re taking it one day at a time.

“Everyone depended on him,” Jikamo said. “He had a big family. He wanted to go back to Ethiopia and improve his country.”

Marissa Evans marissaevans@seattletimes.com 206-464-3701

Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Information in this article, originally published July 15, 2013, has been corrected. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kifle Jikamo, a relative of drowning victim Tesfaye Girma Deboch, is female.

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