State describes struggle, decries lack of safety precautions.
By Ihosvani Rodriguez
February 10, 2005
As astonishing as it sounds even to her, Chrissy Mitchell said she reluctantly was learning to cope with the grim details surrounding her brother’s death during a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department training exercise at Port Everglades more than a year ago.
But a 16-page report released Wednesday by the Florida Division of State Fire Marshal re-ignited her anger and anguish over the death of her brother, Wayne Mitchell. The report put in writing details she has long heard about but had never seen acknowledged.
“This is the worst report I’ve read yet,” she said. “To see it in black and white puts me and my family back in turmoil.”
Among some of the most disconcerting accounts is a mention that investigators found Mitchell’s handprints along the wall, indicating he struggled to find his way out before collapsing.
“This kid suffered down there. He suffered alone,” his sister said. “He died in a living hell.”
In composing the report, investigators with the Marshal’s Bureau of Fire Standards and Training conducted interviews, subpoenaed fire officials and pored over hundreds of documents from other agencies that have already looked into Mitchell’s death on Aug 8, 2003.
It blasted Miami-Dade fire officials for not following a long list of safety precautions and portrayed the training exercise as a hellish situation teeming with safety violations that all but guaranteed a fatality.
“The main thing about the report is that if they had followed [basic state safety guidelines], the victim would still be alive today,” said Walter Malo, the bureau’s manager who supervised the investigation.
Mitchell, 37, a lifeguard who waited years for a chance to become a Miami-Dade firefighter, died when he became separated from four fire cadet classmates during the exercise, which simulated a blaze inside of a cargo ship.
The exercise required the recruits to use a fire hose to guide them through a smoky and highly heated steel structure that was ignited. The structure became overwhelmingly hot during the exercise, and the recruits turned around and made for the exits. Mitchell lost the hose and wandered into other rooms, getting lost in the thick smoke.
No one realized that Mitchell, the class leader, was missing until his exhausted classmates stumbled out of the building. One student lost consciousness after exiting the structure, and four other cadets were transported to area hospitals with burns.
The report noted that other trainees had been injured during previous exercises at the site while under the supervision of some of the same instructors.
There were no firefighters available to rush into the building in case of an emergency, and there was no ambulance nearby, the report said. Another student rushed to the nearby office to dial 911, it said.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Louie Fernandez said fire department officials likely would hand the report to an investigative panel composed of outside fire chiefs and safety officials. Fernandez added that an internal investigation already has led to significant changes within the department, including transfers of instructors involved in the incident to other positions.
Battalion Chief Stan Hills, president of the department’s fire-rescue union, agreed that the department has started making positive changes, but he said the report’s long list of findings and recommendations proves the corrections needed are exhaustive and far from completion.
“This report tells us it’s time to do a little soul searching and time to tighten up our ship,” Hills said.
Mitchell’s family members said they are glad the report serves as another indictment of the fire department’s actions, but they remain angry that no one has been held accountable for his death.
“There are firefighters [in Miramar] who got suspended for dealing drugs, but yet there are people who are responsible for killing my son, and nothing happens to them. Why?” asked Mitchell’s mother, Jeanne Wilcox of Fort Pierce. “We’re not looking for money. We’re not looking for anything except answers to why nobody is being held responsible.”