Accidental OD Blamed in WV Firefighter's On-Duty Death

Aug. 19, 2020
Police have opened an investigation to determine how Charleston firefighter-medic Jason Cuffee acquired the drugs that were found in the system of the late firefighter, who died last month.

Charleston officials said Tuesday that city firefighter and medic Jason Cuffee died from an overdose.

Cuffee, 27, did not respond to a call to service while stationed at the Oakwood Road fire station in the early hours of July 20. He was later taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Charleston Police Chief Tyke Hunt said Tuesday that Cuffee’s toxicology report came back from the state Medical Examiner’s Office Monday afternoon and showed he ingested a fatal amount of drugs.

“The toxicology report came back with fentanyl and xylazine,” Hunt said. “Xylazine is not a drug that we are familiar with in this area. It is a powerful veterinarian-grade tranquilizer that is meant for very large animals.”

Narcan, an opioid-reversal drug used during overdose situations, does not reverse the effects of ingesting xylazine.

“The scary part for me,” Hunt said, “and that I want everyone to listen closely on, is that Narcan will not bring you back.”

The Charleston Police Department has launched a criminal investigation into Cuffee’s death, Hunt said, noting that xylazine has not been found in the Charleston area before.

“We are looking for the person who distributed these drugs or the person who is making these fatal concoctions,” Hunt said.

Charleston Fire Lt. David Hodges said the drugs found in Cuffee’s system were not taken from the fire house. The department keeps fentanyl in a safe in its ambulances as a high-grade painkiller, but the seal on the drug’s package in Cuffee’s ambulance was not broken.

Cuffee, a five-year member of the department, is survived by two young sons and his partner, who is pregnant and expecting a girl. He was a standout football and basketball player at Poca High School, before playing college basketball for three years at Cedarville University, in Ohio.

Charleston Fire Chief Jeffrey Jackson said Tuesday that Cuffee’s death has served as a wake-up call to the department. He was the first firefighter to die on duty since August 1980.

“As first responders, we deal with death, and, unfortunately, almost daily. But, when it’s one of your brothers, it’s an entirely different experience,” Jackson said. “We must do a better job within our department to talk with our members, learn what’s going on in their lives and get them help if they need it. We will do better because we must do better. We must do better for Jason.”

Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said the early stages of the investigation show that Cuffee suffered from a substance abuse disorder. So that this never happens again, she said, any city employee fighting drug addiction or other mental health issues should not fear for their jobs by asking for help.

“This tragedy shows that there is no station in life, no position you can be in, that is immune from addiction, and we all need to be committed to helping those afflicted by it,” Goodwin said. “I promise you, you will not be punished in this administration if you come asking for help. What you’ll get from us is love and compassion and the tools that you need to start recovery.”


©2020 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

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