Hotel manager recounts finding missing UAA runner in lobby

Marko Cheseto hasn't yet said what happened.

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 9, 2011 

Thursday morning update:

Glen Graham, the night manager on duty at SpringHill Suites when missing UAA distance runner Marko Cheseto stumbled in early Wednesday, this morning described what happened.

A guest was checking into the hotel a bit around 3 a.m. and mentioned seeing a man aimlessly wandering through the parking lot. The guest was concerned about security. Graham said he assured the guest that the parking area had cameras and was safe. He went out to see what was going on. Sometimes homeless people come through the area. He saw the man in question walking around.

The man came into the hotel lobby.

"As soon as I greeted him at the door, I recognized him as being the lost UAA runner," said Graham, a UAA student himself who had been reading reports on the situation on the university website.

Cheseto, 28, one of a group of elite Kenyan runners who have gone to the University of Alaska Anchorage, had been missing since Sunday evening.

"The first thing he said to me was '911,' " Graham said. Graham said he immediately called 911, then UAA police. Police and medics got there quickly.

Graham said he tried to find out what he could. "He knew he was gone for a couple of days. He asked what day it was and I told him Tuesday. I asked him if he had been outside in the snow that long and he told me 'Yes.' "

Cheseto could barely talk, Graham said. He could only mumble "911."

University athletics officials said Wednesday they haven't been able to get a clear picture of what happened yet. Police say there was no foul play. Cheseto suffered severe frostbite to his feet and is recovering at Providence Alaska Medical Center, the university has said.

Graham offered him hot cocoa to warm up, and he declined. The manager said he took Cheseto over to the fireplace to warm up and he was so cold and stiff he could barely bend to sit down. Graham put a blanket over Cheseto's lap.

He was wearing a coat but not gloves or a hat. Snow was frozen all over his jeans. His coat had leaves on it. When paramedics tried to remove his tennis shoes, they couldn't because the shoes were frozen to his feet, Graham said.

Medics put him on a stretcher, covered him with blankets, and got him into the ambulance fast, Graham said.

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Original story:

The missing star runner from the University of Alaska Anchorage found his own way to safety early Wednesday but suffered severe frostbite on his feet during his two-day disappearance, a university official said.

As yet, the mystery remains over what happened to Marko Cheseto, according to the UAA athletic director and the school's running coach. They say they haven't pressed him. His disappearance sparked a massive search of the city's trails Tuesday.

Cheseto is 28, one of a group of elite Kenyan runners who have attended UAA. He stumbled into the SpringHill Suites at University Lake a little after 3 a.m. He could barely speak. He seemed hypothermic. Snow was frozen to his jeans, said John Sloane, chief engineer for the building, who was reading from the report left by the night manager.

The hotel called 911 as well as university police. The manager took him to the lobby fireplace to warm up. Medics and police arrived quickly, and an ambulance whisked him to nearby Providence Alaska Medical Center.

Overnight, it was about 8 degrees in the university area, according to the National Weather Service. It snowed the night he went missing.

Police found no evidence of foul play or anyone else being involved, said Rick Shell, the university police chief. Police had put out a request Tuesday for an elderly white man whom Cheseto had last been seen talking to on Sunday evening to come forward, but that doesn't seem important now, Shell said. There was no sign of drug use or drinking, the chief said.

"There's nothing to report on other than he walked out in the woods and came back a couple of days later," the police chief said.

At the hospital around 3:30 a.m., Shell asked Cheseto if anyone had hurt him and he replied no. The police chief asked him where he had been and he said he didn't know. He seemed disoriented, so the chief didn't push.

Steve Cobb, UAA athletic director, got the news from Shell.

"It's the best call I've ever gotten at four in the morning," Cobb said.

He was told the athlete had found his way to the lobby of the hotel and was taken to Providence. He called the running coach, Michael Friess.

"Our team is breathing again for the first time in the last 50 hours," Friess said.

NO CLEAR PICTURE

When Cobb saw Cheseto at the hospital early Wednesday, he was recuperating under sheets and blankets, conscious and coherent. A few teammates were there. It was surreal to see the young man many had feared was dead. But he didn't talk about his ordeal.

"We don't have any intention of broaching that for several days," Cobb said. "That's just not primary to us. Primary to us is getting him recovered."

Cheseto was being treated for severe frostbite of his feet, Cobb said, and other than that appeared to be in stable condition.

His doctor told Cobb it will take a few days to know how severe the frostbite is and whether Cheseto will lose any part of his feet. His future as a runner is uncertain. He'll be in the hospital at least a week, Cobb said. Cheseto has health insurance, which is a requirement for international students. Anyone who wants to send a card can do so through the UAA athletic department.

At the hospital, Friess said, he gave Cheseto a big hug and kiss. He let him know everyone cared about him and had been looking for him. Cheseto just needs to rest and feel safe and recover.

"The last thing you want to do is go jump in and barrel down with all these questions," Friess said.

Was he outdoors the whole time? What happened?

Friess said he doesn't yet know.

"We don't have a full clear picture of what was going on," the coach said.

FROZEN LIMBS

Anchorage emergency room doctors say it's theoretically possible for someone to survive outdoors in single-digit temperatures without special gear or supplies for a couple of days, especially someone as fit as Cheseto.

But the damage from frostbite can be permanent, Dr. James O'Malley said.

Fingers and toes, hands and feet all are at risk of freezing or partly freezing, O'Malley said. Sometimes the damage is reversible, depending on factors including the altitude, the length of time the person was in the cold, whether he or she was dehydrated or a smoker or a drinker. One person with a blackened toe from freezing may recover or only lose a tip; another may lose the whole thing.

The treatment must be prompt and aggressive, O'Malley said.

It includes warming patients up rapidly in hot baths and giving them IV fluids that contain a medicine to coat blood platelets so they don't form clots.

Even the best treatment isn't great, he said. People need to be prepared with hats, gloves, coats and scarves when they venture out into the Alaska winter.

AN ELITE RUNNER

Cheseto, whose full name is Marko Cheseto Lemtukei, has been a standout student athlete at UAA with close to a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He's one of the most decorated UAA athletes ever. He twice won regional Division II cross country championships, a 10-K race. He is well known in Anchorage's running community too. Last year, he set a record in the Mayor's Half-Marathon. He's scheduled to graduate in May as a nursing major.

He has used up his college eligibility to compete in cross country but has continued to travel with the Seawolves as a manager and train with the other runners.

Earlier this year, William Ritekwiang, a teammate from the same village in Kenya, committed suicide. The death of his friend hit Cheseto hard. He sat out the track season last spring but is on the roster for the coming season.

On Sunday evening, Cheseto drove his roommates to buy groceries at a Carrs store. They came home to their apartment on 42nd Avenue and unloaded; then Cheseto drove to the university. He parked at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex. Security cameras captured him coming out of the locker room and near the ice rink.

Cheseto was last seen around 7:15 p.m. Sunday in the lobby of the social sciences building, which is connected to the campus library. His roommates reported him missing Monday morning.

The search for Cheseto began on Monday and resumed Tuesday in a big way. Alaska Pacific University loaned snowmachines. Alaska State Troopers sent up a helicopter. Volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, the Nordic Ski Patrol and Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs and police search teams pitched in. They checked trails, campus buildings, anyplace Cheseto might have gone. But he's a fast distance runner and could have covered a lot of ground. If he hadn't shown up, dive teams were going to check city lakes Wednesday.

The community's concern and help meant a lot, Friess said. He's heard from universities and runners all over the country. The Kenyan Embassy called. Everyone's so happy. His cross country runners now can focus on their biggest meet of the year, the upcoming national championships.

"I think most people were assuming we lost him," Friess said. "We were hoping for a miracle and we got it."


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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