THERE ARE STILL many unanswered questions around the death of Omni Houston Hotel employee Jill Renick, who drowned in the hotel’s basement as it filled with flood waters from last year’s Hurricane Harvey. Her family and attorneys, however, say they know one thing: Renick’s death could have been prevented, and they are suing the hotel for failing to save her.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the 44th Civil District Court in Dallas County, Texas, details 48-year-old Renick’s final hours in the early morning of last Aug. 26 when she was riding out the storm at the hotel with her dog, Sweet Pea. She was the hotel’s director of spa services in its Mokara Spa. Around 5:15 a.m., the front desk called her room and told her to come downstairs.
The details of what followed are somewhat unclear, but at some point Renick boarded the hotel’s service elevator and went down to the basement, where the elevator stopped working. After screaming for help and even calling the front desk, Renick managed to get out of the elevator and roam the flooding basement for at least several minutes, captured on video, apparently looking for a way out.
She would not find one. Her body was not found until Sept. 7, wedged in a small space between the ceiling tiles and the ceiling where she seems to have climbed in a desperate attempt to escape the relentless water.
“Jill’s death was horrific and easily preventable,” said the family’s lawyer Rob Crain of Crain Lewis Brogdon. “This hotel has a history of flooding as it sits in a low-lying area next to a river. Not only was there ample warning of heavy rain accompanying Hurricane Harvey, the Omni knew their basement was flooding that morning; it is unconscionable to leave the elevators operating, to not barricade around the elevators to prevent their use, and to not warn Jill and the other guests of this life-threatening danger. In a flood, elevators are death traps.”
Omni Hotel Senior Communications Manager Kristen Cadenhead confirmed that the company had received the lawsuit but could not comment on pending litigation. “We can say the entire Omni Hotels & Resorts family continues to mourn the loss of Jill.”
The 11-story, 378-room Omni Houston Hotel was built in 1981, and since then the nearby Buffalo Bayou had overrun its banks and flooded the hotel property several times in the past.
On the day of the storm, the lawsuit says, the hotel’s basement began to flood around 4:46 a.m. Video shows several people, including a man in boots and yellow rain slicker holding a radio, working in the basement with the floor completely covered in water and debris.
The service elevator Renick took to the basement does not go to the third floor where she was staying. The hotel has not explained how she came to be in the elevator, according to the lawsuit. The Houston Police Department Dive Team made several attempts to find her after Aug. 27, but were unsuccessful due to the severe flooding, according to local media reports.
“We can see in the video footage that Jill fought hard to find an exit,” Crain said. “I simply cannot imagine the anguish and torment she experienced trying to find her way out. The Omni Hotel failed Jill and its guests.”
Renick grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Oklahoma and her master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma. She lived in the Dallas area before moving to Houston in 2015.
Several other hotels in Houston experienced flood damage during Harvey.