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Expert Revisits Cecil Hotel Water Tank Case

Friday, February 26, 2021

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Whether you’re a subscriber to the video streaming service Netflix or not, you’ve likely heard of the production company’s latest true crime documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

The mini-series premiered earlier this month and retells the story of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian college student, who was found dead in one of the Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel rooftop water tanks in February 2013.

While the story is nearly a decade old, rumors have continued to spread about how Lam ended up in the hotel’s tank and, worse, what impacts her decaying body had on the building’s drinking water.

What Happened

In 2013, Lam was on course for a self-planned tour of Southern California. Traveling alone, her parents reported her missing after her daily calls home ceased on Jan. 31. At the time, Lam was checked into the 600-room, $65-a-night Cecil Hotel, located just a few blocks away from the infamous Skid Row district in downtown Los Angeles.

Built in the 1920s, the transient hotel has become known for its gruesome past, having been the site of crime, suicides and murders, in addition to hosting serial killer guests such as Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. In 2011, the hotel was rebranded as “Stay on Main.”

Following Lam’s disappearance, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Rudy Lopez reported that the LAPD conducted a search at the hotel (including its roof) with police dogs, but were unable to find any trace of Lam.

On Feb. 15, 2013, the department released video footage of Lam on an elevator that later went viral, revealing her rather strange behavior as she is recorded pressing multiple floor buttons while also moving in and out of the lift. Others have noted that Lam appeared to be talking to someone, but the video footage reveals no additional persons.

After a 19-day search for Lam, Cecil maintenance worker Santiago Lopez reportedly found the young woman, following complaints made about the hotel’s water pressure, water discoloration and bad taste. As a result of the complaints, Lopez recalled that he shut off the rooftop alarm and took the elevator to the 15th floor, followed by a staircase, to get to the roof.

On the hotel’s rooftop, there are four metal water tanks, each measuring roughly 10 feet high and 4.5 feet wide. Each tank is capable of holding at least 1,000 gallons of water, which is pumped up from city pipes by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Physically getting to the tanks, which are on a platform another 10 feet above the roof, requires ladder access. Each tank is also covered with a small, 20-pound metal access lid.

“I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately 12 inches from the top of the tank,” Lopez reported at the time.

Pedro Tovar, the Cecil's chief engineer, noted that there were only four ways to get onto the roof: three fire escapes that can be accessed via interior doors, and one staircase from the 14th floor. The night of Lam’s disappearance, however, no alarms were reported to go off.

To recover Lam from the tank—the opening was too small for firefighters or rescue equipment—crews had to cut a hole in the side of the storage tank.

Although the case is still considered a mystery by many, the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office ruled Lam’s death an accidental drowning in June 2013. Investigators added that Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and listed it as a “significant condition” for her accidental drowning, as her autopsy revealed trace amounts of her prescribed drugs, which suggested that she’d stopped taking them, potentially triggering a psychotic episode.

Water Testing, Treatment, Effects

Following the recovery of Lam’s body, the Los Angeles Public Health Department was called in to immediately test the hotel’s water supply and permitted the hotel to stay open so long as they provided bottled water and warned guests not to drink the tap water.

Reports from the time indicated that new guests continued to check into the Cecil and were requested to sign a waiver releasing the hotel from liability. Guests who already paid for their rooms were not offered refunds, however.

According to Angelo Bellomo, Director of Environmental Health for the Department, 10-14 samples came back negative for fecal coliforms, total coliforms and other harmful bacteria that is traditionally tested for when a deceased animal is found within a water supply. The tests were taken from the hotel’s tank and water pipes.

“It's likely there was sufficient chlorine in the tank to destroy any bacteria that might have otherwise been present,” Bellomo said.

He also added that recent cold weather could have limited bacteria production within the tank.

After testing, all the tanks and pipes in the building were drained, flushed and sanitized through a plan developed by the hotel and approved by the Department of Public Health. Retesting of the water took place following those efforts prior to health officials approving the hotel’s water supply for drinking.

In the wake of the case’s resurgence in popularity, water expert Karen Ouzts, PhD, RN, PHNA-BC, program director for Walden University's RN-BSN program revealed how bad the drinking water might have been at the Cecil Hotel in a recent article published by Looper.

In the article, Ouzts notes that while there were plenty of concerns over the contamination of the hotel’s water, she believes the water was actually free of anything dangerous.

“One of the biggest health concerns was potential exposure to coliform bacteria or pathogens, which could have been present in the drinking water due to the decomposing body and fecal matter,” Ouzts said. “However, upon testing the water supply, the Los Angeles Public Health Department did not find any harmful bacteria.”

Regarding the complaints of the water’s quality, which ultimately led to Lam’s discovery, Ouzts added that while decaying organic matter in water can result in a musty or earthy smell and taste, the discoloration and scent can also be caused by a variety of other factors, such as the presence of fecal material or corrosion.

“The hotel may have needed an updated water system with adequate filtration,” Ouzts continued. “It is also important for facilities like this one to check their water systems regularly to ensure they are maintaining adequate chlorine and pH levels. Routine maintenance and monitoring may help staff uncover any issues with the water supply, such as unusual color or smell, in a timelier manner.”

However, in reviewing permits from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, a series of permits were finalized regarding additional inspections to the building’s plumbing. In August 2012, the building underwent the replacement of two 220-foot-long cold-water lines by contractor Douglas G. Alfaro.

Furthermore, a permit was issued on Feb. 11, 2013, just four days before the discovery of Lam, for repair of one of the domestic water storage tanks on the roof. The permit expired in 2015 and the work was never completed.

Cecil Hotel Today

A year after Lam’s case, the Cecil Hotel was sold to New York City hotelier Richard Born for $30 million in 2014. Following his purchase, another New York-based firm, Simon Baron Development, acquired the property in a 99-year ground lease.

In 2016, it was announced that the hotel would receive a $100 million renovation and later closed in 2017. Around that same time, Born and Simon Baron applied to have the property declared as a Historic-Cultural Monument, which was approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission and City Council.

In its plans for the hotel’s extensive capital improvement program, Baron intends to reposition the building into a state-of-the-art mixed-use facility.

By November 2019, Los Angeles-based firm Marmol Radziner released renderings of what the interior of the remodeled Cecil Hotel could look like in a meeting with the city’s cultural heritage commission. John LoCascio, from the Consulting firm Historic Resources Group, told the board that renovations would include returning many features inside and outside of the hotel to the way they were in 1924, when the Cecil originally opened.

When complete, the Cecil will feature 299 hotel rooms and 264 affordable units operated by Skid Row Housing Trust. The landmarked building’s 14 floors would be split vertically to serve both the low-income tenants and the hotel guests—essentially creating “two buildings in one,” said Jodi Eilers, the owner’s representative, at the time.

The decision was part of a 2006 settlement the city made aimed at preserving inexpensive residential hotel units in Downtown.

Construction on the project was initially expected to begin in January 2020.

   

Tagged categories: Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; potable water; Quality Control; Tank interiors; Tanks; Tanks; Tanks and vessels; Water Tanks; Water/Wastewater

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