It’s called an LSP: a “last seen point.” The spot in the water where a swimmer was once above the surface, then wasn’t — and where the search for them begins.
Sometimes all a first responder has to do is get to the LSP and plunge a hand into the water to feel an arm or leg just below.
Or a rescue diver will go down as deep as 30 feet, spot a flash of color amid the murk and the milfoil, and pull an unconscious person up.
But those things didn’t happen Aug. 9, when two people, Terrence L. Christian Jr. and Annie Saechao, went into Lake Washington in South Seattle a few hours and 1 mile apart, and never came up.
The losses illustrate not only the hidden dangers of the city’s lakes, but the complex work of the Seattle Fire Department’s rescue divers, its Rescue 1 unit, and the Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol, who all responded to both rescues, and, days later, made recoveries instead.
In this summer of COVID-19, when boat travel is cut off by closed borders and limits on cruising the San Juan and Canadian Gulf islands, boat activity in local waters has spiked. And with pools closed, there are more people swimming in the lakes.
“It’s been a lot more stress on the lakes,” said Sgt. Kevin Haistings, a 36-year member of the SPD, 24 of them spent with the Harbor Patrol. “You could walk across the lake, boat-to-boat some days, with paddle boats floating all around.
“This summer, it wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ ” Haistings said of the recent drownings. “It was a matter of ‘when.’ “
When a 911 drowning call comes in, dispatchers send it to the fire station closest to the scene. Since 2017, the Seattle Fire Department has made sure that there are nine to 10 rescue swimmers on duty on any given day. They make the initial water search, while those on the shore interview witnesses and stand at the ready.
They are usually accompanied by Seattle Fire Rescue 1, a company based st Station 14 in SODO that responds to “heavy” rescues that call for scuba divers who can go as far as 130 feet down, and those trained in high-angle rope rescues.
The Seattle Police Harbor Patrol also responds, but is most often called in for recoveries, and uses sonar technology to find victims.
So far this year, the SFD has responded to 56 water rescues, involving both boats and swimmers. And in King County, there have been 15 drownings since mid-May, seven or eight in August alone, according to Tony Gomez, manager for Violence & Injury Prevention for Seattle – King County Public Health. Gomez said that “makes this August the deadliest in at least the most recent seven years, and we have a ways to go.”
On that perfect, hot Sunday on Aug. 9, Christian, 22, was on a pontoon boat in Seward Park’s Andrews Bay with some friends when, around 5:30 p.m., he dived into the water and swam to a buoy. Four friends saw him struggling and swam over to help him. The friend on the boat tried to pull him up, but Christian “slipped through their grasp and went underwater,” according to the police report.
Minutes after the 911 call came in, SFD rescue swimmers were in the water. A boat from the Harbor Patrol was just five minutes away when the call came in, and responded.
SFD rescue swimmers searched for Christian in 70 feet of water, and were quickly joined by scuba divers from Rescue 1. After an hour — the time when it’s impossible for someone to survive underwater — they knew it would be a recovery.
Three hours later, on the other side of Seward Park, Annie Saechao, 28, fell off a ski boat and into the water, according to police reports. The person driving the boat reportedly jumped into the water to save her, but couldn’t.
Divers from the SFD and Rescue 1 searched for two hours but stopped due to darkness and rough waters. A Coast Guard helicopter also assisted.
In the days after, Haistings, at the Harbor Patrol, used a 40-inch “tow fish,” a sonar device attached to 450 feet of cable, to search the area. Saechao’s body was recovered by the Harbor Patrol on Aug. 12; Christian’s, on Aug. 14.
People drown for any number of reasons. They’re not skilled swimmers, or they get hit by a wave from a passing boat and swallow or inhale water. They get a cramp.
In most cases, no one hears a thing.
“Drownings are silent,” said Capt. Brian Maier, a 21-year member of the SFD who has spent four years with Rescue One. “You get a cramp and you start struggling and you get fatigued and you can’t hold yourself up anymore. Panic sets in.
“But you never hear people screaming,” he said. “They’re still trying to breathe. And when you inhale, it will shut off your windpipe, or your trachea to your lungs.”
Then you go unconscious. Your heart starts slowing down.
“They never think about yelling,” Maier said. “There is so much on their mind.”
After Christian went under, the 911 call went to the firehouse at Rainier Avenue South and South Kenny Street; they got to the lake in one minute, 42 seconds.
Alex Watkins, 31, a firefighter and rescue swimmer with the SFD, swam out to the boat Christian had been on — the Harbor Patrol was already there — and was directed to the LSP by his friends.
“We started to alternate diving until Rescue 1 arrived,” he said. “We just kept working around that buoy.”
On the shore, Watkins’ fellow crew members were gathering as much information as possible about what happened — and where — from panicked friends and family members, and independent witnesses.
Sometimes witnesses struggle to set upon the spot where someone was last seen. Sometimes they’re inebriated, or can’t judge distance on the water. Independent witnesses are often the most clearheaded.
The hope is that when SFD divers go into the water, they are equipped with not only goggles and snorkels, but have “triangulated” the swimmer’s location and description — sex, age, race, the color of what they were wearing.
Rescue 1 — with four of the six crew members on the rig trained scuba divers — often join, and expand the search.
Meanwhile, responders on the shore try to “bring calm to the chaos,” said Maier, of Rescue 1. He has learned to speak slowly to witnesses whose minds and hearts are racing, to explain what’s being done to help, to reassure.
He remembered responding to a rescue near Salty’s in West Seattle, where a kid in a scuba class had disappeared. As Maier stood, watching the team, a man approached, asked what was happening, and thanked them for being there. He said he had come to pick up his daughter from scuba class.
She was the one who drowned.
Moments like that can be “devastating,” Maier said.
Sometimes people in nearby homes and apartments see someone in distress and call 911, while those in or near the water don’t notice anything wrong.
When crews arrive, Maier said, “The people on the beach look at you like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ and the mother looks around and says, ‘Where’s my kid?”
If a person isn’t found after an hour, the rescue becomes recovery, and is turned over to the Harbor Patrol, which uses all the technology available: The GPS coordinates from the cellphone that made the 911 call, the boat-owner’s phone or those on other boats that were close by. Some boats are equipped with a “man overboard” button that will mark the spot.
“If you have a good signal,” said Haistings, of the Harbor Patrol, “the degree of accuracy can be down to 30 feet.”
When that fails, the Harbor Patrol uses a remote-operated vessel, or ROV, which searches and recovers in a defined area; or sonar, which covers a wide area, and which helped in finding Saechao and Christian.
The King County medical examiner ruled that each of them died accidentally, of “asphyxia due to drowning.”
In the wake of a drowning, Haistings and his unit will spend much of their time searching, while also monitoring 250 miles of Seattle shoreline.
“It’s a job,” he said. “But I personally feel it’s important to bring closure to the family. To be able to have somebody to bury, and to help them start their healing process.
“When I find someone, I am happy that we are successful,” Haistings continued. “It hurts more when you can’t find someone and the city tells you that you have to stop looking.”
He remembered recovering the body of a man who had fallen off his boat near Magnusson Park two years before, and worrying how the family would receive the news.
“They had come to grips, and thought that he was buried at sea,” he said. “But they were happy to have found him.”
The recent losses bring home what the SFD and the Harbor Patrol have been stressing for years:
If you’re on a boat, wear a life vest. If you swim off the boat, stay close. Boat owners should keep onboard a “throw bag” with 100 feet of line attached.
Maier believes that the best thing people can do when they witness someone going under is not to move from the spot where you last saw the person. Try to line something up with your point of view — a landmark like a bridge or a house across the water.
“That gets us in the water a lot faster with a lot better target,” Maier said. “Then we can do a circle search. We once went right down the line and the person was right there. We just reached down and reached their hand.”
Remember that pontoon boats are lightweight and can drift.
“You don’t recognize that the boat is drifting when you’re in the water,” Haistings said. “It’s just things nobody thinks about.”
Paddleboards are not boats, or toys, he said. People will paddle out to the middle of the lake and dive off, into 20 feet of water, then watch the board float away.
“The water is very dangerous, even for good swimmers,” said Watkins, the SFD rescue swimmer. “I have heard of Navy SEALs drowning in a pool. It doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are.”
That goes for those who see someone struggling, and want to help.
Haistings referred to the “reach, throw, row, go,” adage, which recommends people use a hand or a pole to reach a swimmer. If that doesn’t work, throw a life ring or something else tethered to the boat. If you can, row out to them. Only after those things, should anyone go into the water, he said.
That’s what the driver of the boat did after Christian started to struggle. He jumped in and was pulling Christian toward the boat, Haistings said, “but he was also being pulled underwater and had to make the decision to let go.
“He is pretty shaken up,” he said, “and is struggling with what happened.”