Hotel Brings Seattle Fire Department into Drowning Lawsuit

The hotel filed a third-party complaint against Seattle stating firefighters didn't do their job.


June 27--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.

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 2 1/2 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 bodywas 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.

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