The family of a man who drowned a year ago in the swimming pool at the Quality Inn & Suites Seattle Center has filed a wrongful-death suit against the owners of the hotel, claiming poor maintenance made the water unusually murky and contributed to a botched rescue operation by firefighters.
In their suit, the family of 27-year-old Tesfaye Girma Deboch claims the hotel owners were aware of problems with the chlorine levels, which prompted Public Health — Seattle & King County to close the pool for two days, a week before the drowning on June 30, 2013. In addition, the suit alleges the emergency shut-off for the pool’s drain was not working and may have contributed to Deboch’s death.
The hotel operators, Seattle Hospitality Inc., last Friday filed a third-party complaint seeking to draw the city of Seattle into the suit as a second defendant, claiming the Seattle Fire Department failed to conduct an adequate water rescue and didn’t find Deboch in the pool after firefighters were summoned to the hotel.
Lawyers representing Seattle Hospitality and the city declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
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Deboch, a doctoral student at Washington State University, was staying at the hotel with 13 other WSU students who were in Seattle to attend an economics conference. Deboch decided to go for a swim in the hotel pool around 5:30 p.m. along with his friend, Pavan Dhanireddy.
Minutes after getting into the water, however, Dhanireddy said that he saw Deboch flailing and splashing, and realized he was drowning. Dhanireddy, who could not swim, ran to the hotel’s front desk, desperate for help, and the attendant called 911, Dhanireddy told The Seattle Times last year.
Seattle firefighters arrived within 2½ minutes of the call, according to Fire Department records. They searched the pool using a rescue hook and thermal-imaging camera but found no sign of Deboch.
A Fire Department report states that firefighters “believed they were visually able to confirm that no victim was in the pool” and thought they could see the pool’s bottom.
A civilian also got in the pool to search for Deboch, but no firefighters entered the water, according to the report.
The report states that firefighters canceled a water-rescue and dive team and left the scene after 17 minutes. They told hotel employees they could reopen the pool and declared Deboch missing.
However, Dhanireddy told The Times last year that Deboch’s clothes, phone, wallet and shoes remained poolside.
“There were more than a dozen people allowed back in the pool to swim,” Micah LeBank, the attorney representing Deboch’s family, said in an interview this week. “The hotel let people get back into that murky water and swim around, unable to see the body.”
When Deboch still wasn’t found, his friends searched the pool again.
Tom Fleming, a 51-year-old off-duty firefighter vacationing at the hotel, joined in the search and cleared the pool of swimmers, according to the Fire Department report.
The Seattle Times reported last year that after about a 10-minute search Fleming felt something in the center of the deep end of the pool. He asked the hotel to turn off the pump and was able to pull up Deboch’s body.
“You could not see him until you got him 18 inches to the surface,” Fleming told The Times last year. “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.”
Firefighters were summoned back to the hotel at 8:12 p.m. and attempted CPR on Deboch, but it was too late, according to the Fire Department’s report.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office later confirmed that Deboch had died of drowning.
The lawsuit claims that Deboch’s body was dragged by suction from a pump to a drain in the middle of the deep end, where it was held for nearly three hours. The suit claims that the pump’s emergency shut-off, which would have released suction after detecting a blockage, had failed. The suit also claims poor water quality prevented rescue attempts by firefighters.
“The hotel violated both the codes and their responsibility to their patrons’ safety,” LeBank said. “Mr. Deboch, as a hotel patron, was swimming in the pool assuming everything was safe, but time and time again the hotel neglected the basic upkeep of the pool. There is a long record of that.”
On May 23, 2012, inspectors closed the pool because it had chlorine levels at twice the acceptable limit, according to the inspection report. The report noted the pool appeared cloudy. The pool was reopened the next month.
Health inspectors closed the pool again about a month before the drowning because the water had no chlorine and was cloudy and hazy, according to a statement last year from the public health department. The pool reopened two days later after hotel management said it had corrected the problem, though alkaline levels were still below the standard levels, The Times reported last year.
After Deboch’s death, health officials closed the pool, citing safety hazards including malfunctioning emergency shut-offs. Inspectors again noted the murkiness of the water.
In the third-party claim, Seattle Hospitality faults the Seattle Fire Department for its response to the incident. The complaint cites the department canceling the diving team and failing to put any crew member in the water as a factor contributing to Deboch’s death.
After the incident, the Fire Department evaluated its water-rescue procedures, noting firefighters were not trained to “operate in a pool environment.” As a result, this year all city firefighters are to take an online water-rescue awareness course as part of routine refresher training, spokesman Kyle Moore said this week.
After Deboch’s death, his body was taken to his native Ethiopia for burial.
“Deboch was a brilliant young man,” said LeBank, the family’s lawyer. “He was beloved to all who were close to him, so this is a truly tragic loss.”
Erin Heffernan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3249.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.