L.A. hotel drinking water tested after B.C. woman found in tank

DAVID HUTCHINSON 778-839-5442 DAVID.HUTCHINSON@CENTURY21.CA

British tourist Michael Baugh and his wife said water had only trickled for days as they brushed their teeth, showered and drank from the taps at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but they could not have imagined the disturbing reason.

The body of Canadian Elisa Lam, 21, was later discovered at the bottom of one of four cisterns on the roof of the historic hotel near Skid Row. The tanks provide water for hotel taps and would have been used by guests for washing and drinking.

"The moment we found out, we felt a bit sick to the stomach, quite literally," Baugh said.

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials were expected to release the results of tests on the water Thursday.

Risk of fecal contamination

When the body was discovered Tuesday, they issued a do-not-drink order while a lab analyzes the water, said Terrance Powell, a director co-ordinating the department's response. The disclosure contradicts a previous police statement that the water had been deemed safe.

Powell said the water was also used for cooking in the hotel; a coffee shop in the hotel would remain closed and has been instructed to sanitize its food equipment before reopening.

"Our biggest concern is going to be fecal contamination because of the body in the water," Powell said. He said the likelihood of contamination is "minimal" given the large amount of water the body was found in, but the department is being extra cautious.

Powell said the hotel hired a water treatment specialist after the department required it to do so to disinfect its plumbing lines.

A call to the hotel was not returned.

Lam's body was found by a maintenance worker. Police detectives were working to determine if her death was the result of foul play or an accident. LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez called it suspicious and said a coroner's investigation will determine Lam's cause of death.

Strange behaviour

Before she died, hotel surveillance footage showed Lam inside an elevator pushing buttons and sticking her head out the doors, looking in both directions. She was later found in the water tank.

Lam, of Vancouver, travelled alone to Los Angeles on Jan. 26 and was last seen five days later by workers at the hotel.

Lopez said the hotel has four cisterns on its roof that are each about three metres tall, 1. 4 metres wide and hold at least 3,785 litres of water pumped up from city pipes.

Lam's body was found Tuesday morning at the bottom of one cistern that was about three-quarters full of water, Lopez said.

A maintenance worker at the Cecil Hotel found the body earlier in the day after guests complained of low water pressure. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)A maintenance worker at the Cecil Hotel found the body earlier in the day after guests complained of low water pressure. (AP Photo/Nick Ut) (Nick Ut/Associated Press)

The opening at the top of the cistern is too small to accommodate firefighters and equipment, so they had to cut a hole in the storage tank to recover Lam's body. The cisterns are on a platform at least three metres above the roof.

To get to the tanks, someone would have to go to the top floor then take a staircase with a locked door and emergency alarm preventing roof access. Another ladder would have to be taken to the platform and a person would have to climb the side of the tank.

Lopez said there are no security cameras on the roof.

Lam intended to travel to Santa Cruz, about 560 kilometres north of Los Angeles. Officials said she tended to use public transportation and had been in touch with her family daily until she disappeared.

Historic hotel

The 600-room Cecil Hotel was built in the 1920s and refurbished several years ago. It charges $65 a night.

The hotel is on Main Street in a part of downtown where efforts at gentrification often conflicts with homelessness and crime. It had once been the occasional home of infamous serial killers such as Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, and Austrian prison author Jack Unterweger, who was convicted of murdering nine prostitutes in Europe and the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported.

By noon Wednesday, the Cecil Hotel had relocated 27 rooms used by guests to another hotel, but 11 rooms remained filled, Powell said. Those who chose to remain in the hotel were required to sign a waiver in which they acknowledged being informed of the health risks and were being provided bottled water, Powell said.

Baugh and his wife, who were on their first trip to the U.S., had planned to go to SeaWorld on Wednesday. Instead, they were trying to find a new hotel. Their tour agency placed them in another downtown hotel with a less than sterling reputation, from what they heard.

"We're just going from one dodgy place to another," Baugh said, resigned, "but at least there's water."