'We couldn't breathe:' Fresno Pacific swimmers sue university over 'toxic' chlorine exposure

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Three Fresno Pacific swimmers say they're feeling long-lasting effects of a toxic chlorine exposure the university tried to minimize.

"It was a very frightening and horrible experience we all had to go through," said Dakota Loew-Garrelts, a former swimmer who quit the team after the exposure sickened him. "Thirteen of us were sent to the hospital due to what occurred that day."

Loew-Garrelts says he can barely exert himself physically now beyond walking. Mireya Ortega and Matheus Misquito also say they're still suffering, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

And they don't think the university has done the right thing since almost immediately afterward.

Two years ago, Loew-Garrelts was a Top 8 backstroker in the Pacific Collegiate Swim and Dive Conference, but the chlorine spill in the Fresno Pacific pool ended his swimming career in January 2018.

He hasn't gotten over it.

"I don't feel like the medical care was a priority after the incident and I'm optimistic now that I will have a proper assessment done and get my ongoing issues addressed," he told Action News.

The three swimmers feel like the university has minimized the problem from the starting gun.

An initial statement characterized all their injuries as minor even as they went to the hospital gasping for breath and unable to shake the pain.

In a lawsuit, they say their coach and other school officials pressured them to get back to swimming without ever getting proper medical care.

"What bothers me about this complaint, if these facts are true, it seems there's a callous disregard, totally disregarding the injuries to these students when it happened and now appearing to cover it up," said legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Fresno County public health inspectors ordered the pool closed when they found an equipment malfunction allowed extra chlorine into the pool.

They reopened it a week later, but the trouble wasn't done for the students.

The university promised to cover medical bills, but it hasn't made good.

"At least one of our clients is now being sent to a collection agency because of their ambulance bills," said attorney Michael Louis Kelly, who represents the three swimmers.

A spokesperson for the university told Action News they're aware of the lawsuit.

"Fresno Pacific University does not comment on pending litigation," said Wayne Steffen. "The university is committed to the health and well-being of every student entrusted to us."

"You know, it's easy for them to demonstrate that," said Kelly. "Pick up the phone, call me and first thing we need to do is get their medical expenses sorted out."

Barring a settlement, the two sides will meet in court for the first time in February.
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