July 25, 2004
Just days before a firefighter recruit died during a training exercise, he told his sister he was concerned about how the instructors were treating his class. The recruits had to wear their bunker gear all day, she recalled him saying. The instructors berated them and forced them to do push-ups in the parking lot at high noon.
Then Wayne Mitchell made an eerie remark: “He said, `I don’t know what’s going to kill me, the heat or the gear,'” Chrissy Mitchell said.
She didn’t think he was serious, but five days later, her brother was dead, overcome by scorching heat after more than 20 minutes inside a burning makeshift cargo ship at Port Everglades.
He was abandoned by two of the three Miami-Dade Fire Rescue instructors who bailed out of the drill early. And he was separated from fellow recruits who raced straight for the door while he tried to follow the rules and complete the drill as instructed. Somehow he made a wrong turn as he crawled around searching for the exit, using a hose as a guide. The heat was so intense that it burned through his gloves and his protective clothing. No one even knew he was missing until it was too late to save him.
Chrissy Mitchell had to identify her brother’s body in the hospital that horrible Friday morning last August.
“All 10 of his fingers were burned, his knees were burned. He had the helmet melted onto his face,” said Mitchell, of South Miami. “I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just a very painful thing.”
As painful as Mitchell’s death was for his family, what’s almost as painful a year later is knowing the people responsible for his death have not been held accountable. The family fears they never will be.
Broward Sheriff’s Office detectives investigated the incident, but they did not find any criminal intent so charges are unlikely.
The Miami-Dade County Office of Safety concluded in a critical report that the fire rescue department failed to take basic safety precautions the day they sent the recruits into a training exercise with live fire, but the report did not pin responsibility on any individuals.
And a pending federal report will have recommendations for change, but the fire rescue department will not be forced to follow them. The federal report is intended as a tool for all fire rescue departments to help prevent future training deaths.
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Tony Bared got an anonymous letter more than two months before Mitchell’s death warning him that “the recruits are constantly mentally and physically abused” by the training bureau instructors. He has declined to comment on what actions he took as a result of the letter. After Mitchell’s death he transferred all the instructors from the training bureau but he did not suspend, demote or fire anyone.
The department has vowed to make changes to prevent further tragedies, but when it comes to disciplining workers, procedures need to be carefully followed and that process may not be fast enough to satisfy family members, said Fire Rescue Lt. Eugene Germaine Jr.
“Basically, Wayne’s death was in vain,” another sister, Melissa Johnson, said. “They just want to say, `Oops, we made a mistake,’ and move on. That’s not good enough for me.”
A review board, made up mostly of high-ranking Miami-Dade fire officials, will look at all of the reports and investigations launched after Mitchell’s death, and they could mete out discipline, Germaine said. Mitchell’s family is frustrated, however, that the group has not yet begun its work, and they doubt the board will act harshly.
Germaine said the administrative review board cannot start work until Broward prosecutors turn over the homicide detectives’ report. That should happen Tuesday, he said.
“They came out and said they won’t file any criminal charges,” said Johnson, of Port St. Lucie. “That makes no sense to me. It was negligence on their part. It’s all over that [county] report.
“If no criminal charges will be filed, the best we can hope for is they have to find a new way to make a living,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound so spiteful, but they still have everything and we have nothing … I think their lives should be left slightly in turmoil like ours were. They should lose as much as possible.”
The loss of Mitchell, 37, the only boy raised among sisters and female cousins, has left a gaping hole in his close-knit family. He was the kind of guy who loved his mother enough to call her every morning and dutiful enough to visit his grandmother every week in a nursing home.
At the time of his death, he and his wife, Nancy, were trying to have their first child.
Mitchell, a former lifeguard, was much older than most of his fellow recruits, but he used that to his advantage. He was smart, disciplined and physically fit. His classmates elected him squad leader.
The weekend before his death, he spent an evening playing games with his sister Chrissy and her son at Dave & Buster’s in Hollywood. Although he was upbeat and determined to make it through training, he talked about some of his frustrations and fears. He told her the instructors treated the recruits like they were in a military boot camp.
“They belittled them, they basically wanted them to quit,” she said. “And one thing my brother will not do is back down, no matter what.”
Mitchell was so committed to becoming a firefighter that he missed one of his grandparent’s funerals.
“He called and said, `Mom, you think Granny would be upset?’ and I said, `I don’t think so,'” said his mother, Jeanne Wilcox, of Fort Pierce. “I said, `I’m sure she understands. It’s something you want to do.'”
Mitchell’s mother vacillates between anger and anguish when she talks about the loss of her son.
If she ever comes face to face with the trainers who ran that drill, she said, “You’d have to probably hold me back. I’d probably be jailed for assault.
“They took something very precious that I’m never going to get back,” she said.
Wilcox would like a chance to do to them what they did to her son.
“I’d like to suit them up and have them turn on the fires at a facility they’ve never been in and then send them through on their hands and knees and see how well they did,” she said.
Miami-Dade County reached a yet-to-be disclosed financial settlement with Mitchell’s widow in May, but that is little consolation to her and no consolation to the rest of his family. Nancy Mitchell has declined to be interviewed.
“They need to make a lot of changes,” his sister, Johnson, said. “A lot of people need to be gone. This was something that just should have never happened. … They had lives in their hands and they let one go.”