WTVJ-TV-MIAMI – Testimony continued Monday in the panel hearings investigating a Miami-Dade Fire Department recruit’s death in August 2003. NBC 6 investigated Wayne Mitchell’s death in our special report "Death Under Fire."
The Story In Pictures: Panel Investigates Recruit’s Death
Monday, new questions were raised about the chaos on the day he collapsed during a burn exercise.
The man in charge of training, Capt. Bill Herrera, blamed department higher-ups for underfunding the training programs he was in charge of. He also blamed instructors below him for abandoning their duties on the day the recruit died.
Herrera pointed the finger at fire captain Jerome Byrd for bailing out on the group of recruits during the training exercise in Port Everglades.
Mitchell died in a facility that most now agreed had been made too hot. Herrera read a written statement squarely blaming Byrd. "It was too hot in that building at that moment," Herrera said. "It was Capt. Byrd’s responsibility to change that. Did he make an urgent radio call or advise there was a problem happening inside? No."
Wayne Mitchell’s sister and wife said they were not happy hearing the blame spread around.
"No, I’m not satisfied with those answers," said Chrissy Mitchell, Wayne Mitchell’s sister. "The blame is still being put upon everybody else." Herrera also mentioned two other instructors who left the burn facility before the recruits because of the heat. "They were weak," Herrera said. "I’m 54 years old and I actually went in seven, eight times during that day to keep an eye on them." But panel members pressed Herrera on whether written safety rules might have helped.
Herrera claimed he e-mailed a safety plan to his chief, William Stephenson, but it didn’t go through. Still, he said safety rules wouldn’t have helped. "As much as I hate to say this, people panicked," Herrera said. Herrera said higher-ups sent in poor trainers and little equipment. "They couldn’t get a trainer. It’s not in the budget," he said. "If the e-mails didn’t go through he should have been on the phone," Chrissy Mitchell said. "He should have been in the offices. He should have taken action."
Mitchell’s family hopes a panel of experts will discipline Herrera and others and perhaps make reforms that would provide some modest comfort. "His death will be saving many lives, I hope," Mitchell said. "No matter where the blame lies, it’s not going to bring him back."
"You never leave firefighters and recruits in their first live burn in such a complicated facility," Wayne Mitchell’s wife, Nancy, said. Herrera’s testimony took up most of the afternoon Monday before the panel. Byrd already talked to this group, saying that Herrera’s intimidating style had recruits fearing they would be fired if they left the training exercise due to the heat.
NBC 6’s Nick Bogert reported the panel will meet a few more times before it decides if any sanctions will be issued in the case.