Death Under Fire
November 10, 2004
by: Michael Williams, Investigative Producer: Scott A. Zamost, Editors: Pedro Cancio and Ed Garcia
SOUTH FLORIDA -- Miami-Dade County,
They're trained to save lives -- experts in safety. But did South Florida's largest fire department ignore safety warnings, leading to the death of one of their own? Firefighter recruit Wayne Mitchell died with other firefighters nearby. His grieving family wants answers about how a training exercise turned into tragedy. NBC 6 goes inside a "burn room" where there's smoke and heat and fire -- all controlled to test a firefighter recruit.
Wayne Mitchell walked into a burn like this. He never walked out. "All I know is he died doing something he really wanted to do and no one's told me why he even had to die, or how they let him die," said Mitchell's mother, Jeanne Wilcox.
37 years old--a former lifeguard--Mitchell's mother and sisters say he lived to protect others. Our investigation found in the months before the accident that claimed his life, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department received serious written and verbal warnings about how recruits were being trained -- safety warnings coming from inside the department itself.
"Given the circumstances of the things that went on in training, and the way the course was set up, it could have been better, it could have, in my opinion, prevented his death," Capt. Jerome Byrd told NBC 6.
Byrd, the lead instructor for Mitchell's class -- is speaking out for the first time. "They had given us their loved ones and it was our responsibility to give them back to them alive and as a firefighter, and I felt our department had let them down," Byrd said.
On Aug. 8, 2003, Wayne Mitchell headed into a burn room at Port Everglades. He was part of a five-person squad. Byrd was one of three instructors who went inside with the recruits.
The task--follow a hose, put out a fire and move back out. "The recruits were dependent on the instructors and training to get them in and out," Byrd said. Byrd told NBC 6--and official reports back him up--that his two fellow instructors left the burn room before the recruits finished their drill. Both instructors complained about the heat.
Mitchell apparently disoriented, took a wrong turn, ending up just eight feet from the exit. Byrd had escorted the other recruits out and rushed back in -- finding Mitchell. The medical examiner said he died from "exposure to extreme heat."
"Firefighter Wayne Mitchell died this morning in a recruit training exercise," former Fire Chief Antonio Bared told reporters the day the accident happened.
Only the week before his death, Mitchell had talked with his family about the rigors of day in and day out training in the summer heat.
"His words to me were it is gonna be either the gear or the heat that kills him," Mitchell's sister Chrissy told NBC 6.
A former recruit -- now a Miami-Dade firefighter -- and talking on the condition of anonymity - went through the burn room that day.
"Everybody was afraid to say it's time to get out of here," the recruit told NBC 6. The burn room exercise was simply too much too soon, the former recruit said. "If you want to put us in this type of building, let us graduate to that level. You know for our first fire, none of us felt like we were ready for that," the former recruit said.
There were other complaints that recruits were being pushed too hard. An anonymous letter sent to top department officials only nine weeks before Mitchell's death warned that "unsafe treatment of recruits" through harsh physical training could "result in death." we've confirmed the letter writer is a firefighter who works in training.
Byrd wrote his own e-mail warning and says he voiced his concern at the very top. "I said Chief Phillips if you guys don't get out there and do something about training, somebody's gonna die," Byrd said.
Chief Charles Phillips, on leave at the time and since retired , says he doesn't remember that conversation with Byrd. And Antonio Bared, who was fire chief after Phillips, says recruit training issues were looked into, although Byrd says nothing changed.
"Do you feel a blind eye was turned to your concerns?" reporter Michael Williams asked Byrd. "Oh, most definitely," Byrd replied. The concerns went even higher in Miami-Dade County government. Less than two weeks before Mitchell died, a lieutenant wrote to the county commission chair about "the way individuals are being treated" in recruit training. Capt. Bill Herrera was in charge of that recruit training.
"His quote, unquote philosophy was different from mine. His thing was that they get it right now and if they can't get it and I don't like to speak for him, they're out of here," Byrd said.
Two fire department veterans were at odds. Herrera complained that Byrd was an inept instructor. Byrd says he warned his superiors the training course set up by Herrera posed a danger.
"I said chief, this curriculum is not conducive to learning for the recruits. I said it is not structured to help recruits pass. It is set up for failure," Byrd said.
Daily log books NBC 6 obtained from Mitchell's class show recruits began search and rescue training three days before they went into the burn room.
Byrd argued more training was needed in search and rescue. After that chaotic day , recruits from Mitchell's class told police investigators that Capt. Herrera had warned they would be fired if they left the burn room early.
"Then I heard Capt. Herrera say do you think we need to turn it up, turn up the heat? I'm like wow, I thought wow when he said that, it's already hot in there."
"There is no brotherhood," Mitchell said. "They claim brotherhood in the fire department but where were the brothers that day? There were no brothers that day it was every man for himself."
Capt. Herrera declined our repeated requests to talk on camera. In telephone interviews, he insisted recruits had enough search and rescue training.
Herrera says remarks attributed to him that recruits would be fired for leaving that burn room were taken out of context. The captain also says his bosses looked the other way when he argued for years about the need to get radios for recruits for burn exercises. Nonetheless, Herrera insists the drill was safe.
But a Miami-Dade County report concluded the burn was too advanced, that the fire training was incomplete, included no safety plan and failed to meet nine national safety guidelines.
"There was no paramedics, there was no ambulance there," Mitchell's mother told NBC 6. "There was nothing there when my son died. No one was there when he died. No one to save his life and that is what their jobs are, are to save people's lives."
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Herminio Lorenzo said, "I just wish to convey to them our sorrow and the fact that their son's or husband's death was not in vain."
Lorenzo is the new Miami-Dade fire chief. On the job only three months now, he came from Broward County. "It is our intent to make sure this never happens again. And if we can in any way, shape or form help other fire departments so that this incident never happens again."
"As his mother he will always be my son. And I'll always want to know why someone didn't save his life, where were they when my son was dying?" Mitchell's mother said.
Mitchell's widow received $1.9 million from Miami-Dade County, which did not admit liability. And in the wake of the accident, the fire department turned recruit training over to Miami Dade Community College.
Meanwhile, the department is wrapping up its own investigation into the incident, and that should be completed this month or before the end of the year, at the latest.
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11-10-2004, 08:01 AM #1
- Join Date
- Apr 2002
- Land of milk and honey.
Firefighter Death - Warnings ignored
11-10-2004, 08:52 AM #2
Re: Firefighter Death - Warnings ignoredOriginally posted by Firebug030
Byrd told NBC 6--and official reports back him up--that his two fellow instructors left the burn room before the recruits finished their drill. Both instructors complained about the heat.
If this is true, I hope those instructors are both fired and lose their instructor certificationsIf my basic HazMat training has taught me nothing else, it's that if you see a glowing green monkey running away from something, follow that monkey!
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