The firefighters who failed to see the body of a university student in a Seattle hotel swimming pool in June were not trained to “operate in a pool environment” and did not understand the difficulties of searching for a submerged victim from the surface, according to a report released Friday.
As a result, Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said the department will review water-rescue training protocols and consider training some front-line firefighters as rescue swimmers after the June 30 incident that claimed the life of 27-year-old Washington State University graduate student Tesfaye Girma Deboch.
“This was truly a tragic accident,” Dean said Friday.
The department believes visual distortions created by conditions in the pool at the Quality Inn & Suites Seattle Center likely hid the victim’s body from view of the firefighters and civilians who were searching from the pool’s edge. No firefighter entered the water, and their training made no provision for anyone to do so, Dean said.
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A professional dive team operated by the department out of Station No. 14 in Sodo was initially dispatched to the incident, but it was canceled after the commander at the pool said no body could be seen.
Dean said the department was unaware of a 2007 study by the International Life Saving Federation that found that surface turbulence, lighting conditions and water depth and clarity can combine to make submerged bodies virtually invisible from the surface of a swimming pool.
“The crew on scene did not understand how challenging it is to see a submerged victim even when it appears that the bottom of the pool is plainly visible,” the report said.
Dean said his crews responded quickly and did as they were trained. He said there would be no discipline.
The crews that were first dispatched to the pool at 5:35 p.m. reported that the water was hazy but that “visibility was good.” When they returned an hour and a half later, after the body was discovered, Dean said, the water was almost opaque.
An investigation into the incident said Deboch might have been held on the bottom by suction from the drain after an emergency shut-off had failed.
That pool had been closed in May for health reasons, including murky water, but was allowed to reopen two days later. Health officials closed the pool again after the drowning, citing health risks including turbid water.
Deboch was swimming with a friend when he foundered in the deep end and submerged. His friend ran for help and fire crews responded. Initially, the crews were told by dispatchers that the victim was a child, but they later learned they were looking for a dark-skinned, 6-foot man.
Dean said the engine crew that responded stayed on scene for nearly 17 minutes, searching the pool, the surrounding area and the rooms before returning to the station after concluding Deboch had probably left the area.
An hour and a half later, a retired firefighter and hotel guest who was helping Deboch’s frantic friends found the body at the bottom of the pool with a pole.
An autopsy indicated Deboch drowned.
Deboch, a native Ethiopian and Ph.D. candidate, was one of 14 graduate students from WSU’s School of Economic Sciences who were in Seattle June 30 to attend the Western Economics Association International Conference.
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706