Fresno Pacific swim team members sue university over alleged excessive chlorine exposure

Three members of Fresno Pacific University’s swim team are suing the college for negligence after they were allegedly exposed to a dangerous amount of chlorine in the pool.

The student athletes, Mireya Ortega, Dakota Loew-Garrelts and Matheus de Freitas Misquito, allege in their civil lawsuit that on Jan. 9, 2018, the team was practicing in the university’s pool when they suddenly began coughing, had trouble breathing and experienced a burning feeling in their throats.

“We were all discombobulated, a bunch of us couldn’t breathe and we all didn’t know what to do. I was scared. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what was going on,” Loew-Garrelts, of Phoenix, said in an interview with The Bee.

“I didn’t know if I would be able to breathe again normally. You could see the visible fear on everyone’s face because nobody was able to breathe.”

Soon after the student athletes began feeling ill, the coach told everyone to get out of the pool as the staff tried to figure out what had happened, the lawsuit states.

“The students were then herded into the locker room and trainers’ area where the trainers admonished the student athletes to ‘calm down and just breathe,’” according to the lawsuit. “Only one tank of supplemental oxygen was available so the student athletes had to take turns using it, with some of their turns lasting only two to three precious breaths.”

Thirteen of the team’s swimmers were hospitalized with various symptoms ranging from constant coughing to continuous pain.

Lawyers for the students said the university tried to downplay the seriousness of the event, calling it an accidental release of an “extra amount of chlorine.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court, calls what happened a “toxic chlorine gas leak.”

An inspection report from Fresno County’s Department of Public Health found faulty equipment caused the chlorine gas to be injected into the pool.

Wayne Steffen, a university spokesman, said Friday the administration is aware of the lawsuit but can not comment on pending litigation.

The students are seeking damages, including general and punitive, declaratory relief and restitution for all monies due to them.

Attorney Jason Setchen, who specializes in NCAA-related and student-welfare cases, said the chlorine exposure was so severe that a few of the students weren’t able to return to the swim team and some of them left Fresno Pacific because of the incident.

“They decided to move on because they weren’t able to fulfill their dream to continue swimming for the university,” he said.

Setchen is also concerned the university has not made an effort to determine whether there is any long-term exposure-related issues or if there is a need for future medical care.

“Depending on the amount of exposure the effects, the effects of chlorine inhalation can be extremely serious. They can be long term and what is frightening for Dakota and some of our other clients is the future unknowns,” Setchen said.

The lawsuit alleges the team’s coaching staff pressured the swimmers to resume their swim activities after the chlorine exposure. The coaches were concerned that the team’s ’ standing in league play would suffer if the swimmers didn’t rejoin the team and compete.

The students, according to the lawsuit, said they were still in severe pain, unable to breathe, coughing, and having other pulmonary issues.

Although the university promised to help the injured students with their medical bills, that hasn’t happened, according to the lawsuit. The university issued a press release after the incident saying, in part, that the “medical expenses accrued as a result of the incident will be processed through the student-athlete’s primary insurance as well as by the university’s secondary sports accidental policy.”

But the students’ medical bills continue to grow. They are being sent to collections, including the bill for the ambulance, according to the lawsuit.

It’s been almost two years since the chlorine leak happened and Loew-Garrelts said she is still suffering from breathing issues.

“I can’t do a lot of things outside of daily tasks,” Loew-Garrelts said. “Walking I can do fine, but anything more than walking comes into question. I’m still struggling in anything above walking.

“It gets difficult to do a lot of the things that I want to. I haven’t been able to exercise since the incident — I get a lot of anxiety from it. I feel like bodily and mentally I’m still in the same place as where we started when the incident happened.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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