Questions raised about hotel swimming pool after drowning

SEATTLE -- It wasn't exactly how Tom Fleming had hoped to kick off his 25th wedding anniversary.

Fleming, of Texas, was visiting Seattle in late June before shipping out on an Alaskan cruise with his family. The group was staying at a hotel near Seattle Center for a few days when he heard the roar of sirens one afternoon.

A firefighter for 26 years, Fleming barely flinched. It wasn't until he went down to the pool a short time later that one flag was raised - and then another.

"We step into the shallow end of the pool. I'm walking across and looking down and this is the murkiest pool I've ever seen," Fleming said Tuesday. "You couldn't even see your hand 18 inches below the surface of the pool."

Fleming quickly got out, reported it to hotel staff, and went upstairs to change. It was on a trip to the front desk a few minutes later that he saw an employee fishing around in the water with a body recovery hook.

"These guys are standing there, saying 'our friend has to be in this pool,'" Fleming recalled. "I said, 'I'm here, I'm taller, my arms are longer,'" so he grabbed the pole and went to work.

The first pole didn't work. A second pole later did - with horrific results.

"I finally heard a 'clunk' and it wouldn't move," he said. "I went back over to the pool and advised some parents: you need to get those kids out of there."

Seattle Fire responded and fished the body of 27-year old Tesfaye Girma Deboch out of the pool, said spokesman Kyle Moore.

It would be their second visit that day to the Quality Inn and Suites on Aurora Avenue and John Street to try to find the graduate student from Washington State University.

Their first attempt - nearly three hours earlier - had turned up empty, Moore said. Firefighters conducted a grid search using a thermal imaging camera and a rescue hook. "It appeared to be empty," Moore said in a statement.

"Since it is now clear that the drowning victim was in the pool during the earlier search, the Department is reviewing the incident," he added, "and will determine whether to revise any water rescue procedures."

The hotel's general manager declined to comment on what happened, citing an ongoing investigation, but expressed his condolences to Deboch's family.

The pool was shut down after the drowning - the second time in six weeks, said James Apa, spokesman for the King County Health Department. The facility was last inspected on May 28, and inspectors found several red - or critical - violations.

"In this particular case, normally you're supposed to have chlorine in the pool," Apa said. "We found the chlorine was effectively zero."

"One of the other issues was not being able to see through the water," he continued. "It was hazy or cloudy but you could see to the bottom and the drain cover."

Inspectors allowed the pool to reopen two days later, records show.

After the drowning, a separate inspection found 10 violations, including the pool drain's emergency shut-off wasn't functioning correctly and emergency equipment wasn't where it was supposed to be. Inspectors noted that the water was still hazy but the main drain was still visible.

"The water was clear enough to see the bottom of the pool, to see the main drain on the pool, and for us that's something that I would focus in on," said Mark Rowe, manager for the water recreation program with the county health department. "If you can see the main drain, which is typically located in the deepest part of the pool, then that's a threshold for us to determine whether the water is to meet our standard."

The pool remained closed on Tuesday, with a sign telling hotel guests it was "out of order."

Fleming said he didn't fault rescue crews for not being able find Deboch, whom he believes may have been stuck to the main drain from the suctioning of the water.

"Part of the victim's body was pinned from the vacuum on the very bottom of the pool," he said. "This pool - something, something's not right. This is the murkiest water I've ever seen."

"Trying to find somebody in a pool in that condition," he said, "it's the equivalent to finding a needle in the haystack."