GBI probe raises question of whether first engine at fatal 2010 day care fire needed five firefighters instead of three

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 16, 2013 

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe of Columbus Fire & Emergency Medical Services records is resurrecting questions of whether the first engine at a 2010 home day care fire that killed one child and injured three others was understaffed.

The questions aren't new. They were the subject of an internal fire department investigation sparked by firefighters' complaints that Engine 7 from Station 7 at 5343 Buena Vista Road should have had five firefighters instead of three.

It was the first fire unit to reach the blaze at 5629 Mill Branch Road, off Amber Drive north of Buena Vista Road. The fire was reported at 1:37 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, 2010. First responders described a chaotic, congested scene, with neighbors gathering on the street and parents rushing to find children.

The one-story house was the westernmost of a set of homes tucked away off a paved semicircle on the road's north side. The arrangement left little room for parking.

Having originated in a carport where paint and gasoline were stored near a gas water heater, the blaze erupted with explosions and spread to two cars. When firefighters arrived, flames were racing through the attic.

According to the department's internal probe, Engine 7 was missing two firefighters because the lieutenant who would have been in command was out with an injury, and minutes before the alarm a battalion chief had picked up another crew member for a random drug test.

The affidavit backing the search warrant GBI agents served Tuesday at fire department headquarters alleges Engine 7 was understaffed because both missing firefighters were out for drug testing. Records later were either removed or falsified to show only one was drug-tested, while the second was out sick, says the affidavit.

Dispatched

So Engine 7 left the station that afternoon with Sgt. Greg Adams as the ranking officer, backed by firefighters Rodney Pitts and Connie Jones. Pitts was driving.

When they reached the blazing day care fire 1.3 miles from the station, Adams heard witnesses shouting that children were inside. In his rush to get in, he neglected to radio that he was on the scene and kids were in the house, the investigative report said. The exact time Engine 7 reached the fire is unclear.

Adams took a 1¾ -inch line off the truck as Pitts got the engine pumping. The line had kinks that Jones unraveled to maintain pressure.

Adams raced through the unlocked front door and hosed the flames back toward the carport. He called for Jones to come in after him. His later complaint was that Jones never came.

According to an internal report from Robert Futrell, the department's deputy chief for operations: "He stated that he called to Firefighter Jones numerous times for him to come in to assist with the attack but Firefighter Jones refused to enter the door."

Futrell concluded Jones likely never heard Adams: "Due to the smoke-filled room, the use of breathing apparatus and the noise of the hose line, it is very unlikely that Firefighter Jones would have heard Sergeant Adams yelling for him to come inside." Also, Pitts confirmed that Adams' hose had kinks in it.

The rescuers

Among those who first went into the burning house were witnesses Patrick Edwards and Robert Taylor, who handed two children from a rear bedroom window to police officers outside, before climbing back out. The first officers to arrive reported they could not get to the front door because of heavy smoke and explosions from the carport.

In full gear, Adams was able to brave the heat. Inside the burning living room, he heard a whimper, looked down and found a child lying on the floor, already being covered by the collapsing ceiling. He scooped the boy up and carried him outside, handing him to one of the medics. He was going back in when he heard another child had been rescued.

As more police, firefighters, and parents converged, Mill Branch Road became choked. Some fire units had to park away from the burning house and walk. Fire Engine 6 went one block north to Valleybrook Road and came through a backyard to get to a grass fire spreading behind the day care.

Coming south from Valleybrook, that crew saw the grass fire was already out. They went into the day care, where they found the door to a center bedroom adjacent to the living room blocked by debris from the burning attic.

They broke through a living room wall to get into the bedroom, where they found a child in a baby carrier between the bed and a wall. That was the last rescue.

Nine children had been in the day care, though under state regulations only six were allowed. Upon discovering the fire, owner Rochell Jefferson and an assistant had got some of the children out, taking them to a neighbor's residence to await relatives.

Even after the initial chaos of the fire and rescue, confusion persisted. Authorities said Jefferson told them eight children had been in the house, not nine. Some of those rescued were misidentified. It would take some parents hours to find children.

Dana Richardson was among those searching.

The lost child

That day Richardson was working at Synergy Hair & Nail Salon on Milgen Road, a shop she co-owned. She planned to leave early. Her daughter, a Fort Middle School student, had a basketball game that afternoon, so Richardson would pick up her 23-month-old son Michael "Mikey" Dubard from day care and take him to the game.

Right before she was to leave, a customer came in, so she went back to work. A friend was in the salon, so Richardson suggested the friend get Mikey.

That's when television news reported Mikey's day care was on fire. Richardson twice tried to call Jefferson. The line was busy.

Richardson and her friend left the salon and headed for Mill Branch Road. They were at Floyd Road and Hunter Road when police called Richardson's cell phone. Go straight to The Medical Center, she was told. She did.

A doctor told her Mikey had only smoke inhalation: "He said, 'Oh, your son is fine. He doesn't have a single burn on his body, but we're going to send him to Augusta for smoke inhalation.'"

Hospital workers took her to see the boy. "That's not my son," she told them.

For two hours she and her family tried to find Mikey.

"What I didn't know at the time was my son already had been airlifted to Augusta," she said.

Around 4 p.m., she learned he was in the burn center in Augusta, so disfigured another set of parents had thought he was their son. That he was not was a great relief to them. "They were all pleased and hugging," Richardson said.

She knew the other boy's father from high school, and asked him whether the child he saw was unrecognizable. The father just looked down and said, "Dana, it was bad."

She drove four hours to Augusta. When she saw Mikey, all she recognized were his teeth. He was swollen and wrapped in cloth. Hospital workers caught her as she collapsed, easing her into a chair. "My baby, my baby, what happened?" she repeated.

He had third-degree burns over nearly 90 percent of his body, she said.

The swelling got worse overnight. Richardson herself removed the wet cloths from his body the next day. "He didn't even look human to me," she said.

He was due for surgery. She went to the hospital cafeteria to eat. A friend later told her he died right after she left the room.

The fallout

The fire initiated a sequence of consequences.

State regulators revoked Jefferson's day care license, in a letter stating "rule violations occurred which seriously affected the health and safety of the children in care." The letter went to Jefferson's home on Saratoga Drive in Columbus. The Mill Branch Road address was left an empty lot.

Attorneys for the families of injured children filed claims against Jefferson, whose liability and homeowner's insurance eventually paid off, though not as much as some plaintiff's lawyers felt was warranted. The injured children are scarred for life, they said.

Rochell Jefferson and husband Harvey were represented by Atlanta attorney Stephen Dermer, who on Friday said his clients had nothing left to say, now that all the claims had been settled.

"They're nice people. It was a tragic situation," Dermer said. "They feel terrible about it. It was a horrible accident."

Richardson said she forgives Rochell Jefferson for any oversight that might have contributed to Mikey's death. She has known Jefferson for years, because Jefferson cared for Mikey's sister before she reached school age, Richardson said.

She said no one has ever told her how the fire started. The attorneys' claims laid the blame on flammable material stored near a gas hot water heater and an electrical circuit overloaded by appliances on an extension cord.

The last fire department record regarding the fire's origin comes from investigator Daniel Irions. In notes recorded March 10, 2011, he refers to Traveler's Insurance, the Jeffersons' homeowners carrier, having stored the fire debris in Gainesville, Ga.

The previous day, Fire Chief Ricky Shores had called Irions to ask about the day care investigation. Irions told him the investigation into the fire debris, including automobiles and appliances, was ongoing.

That afternoon, Irions met with investigator Lance Miller, Fire Chief and department head Jeff Meyer and Chiefs Greg Lang and Shores. Irions' last statement gives this account: "Chief Meyer stated that Chief Futrell had additional documents pertaining to an internal investigation. Per Chief Shores, after conversations with Chiief Meyer this case is officially closed at this time."

Search and rescuer

Richardson in the months that followed went looking for the firefighter who rescued Mikey. "I was just as grateful to him as if my son had lived," she said.

She believes the city gave her the runaround, promising to put her in touch but never following through. In a second instance of mistaken identity, she was referred to an awards ceremony where for TV she was videotaped hugging the firefighter who supposedly rescued her son. It was the wrong one, she said.

She started talking to every firefighter she happened to see, asking who had gone to the day care fire. Finally in a Zaxby's restaurant she saw a fire crew who referred her to Station 7.

The staff there told her she was looking for Adams -- Mikey was the child under the collapsed ceiling Adams had pulled from the day care as he battled flames in the front living room.

They met the next day.

"He cried. He hugged me, and he kept saying, 'I'm sorry. I tried. I tried.' And I had to reassure him that I did not feel like he had failed me," she said.

On March 1, 2010, Adams in a letter to Battalion Chief Glenn Bahde wrote that he had warned Bahde on Feb. 23 his crew was dangerously weakened by the loss of their lieutenant.

"I told you that I would be riding in charge, Rodney (Pitts) would be driving the truck and that would leave Connie (Jones) and Earnest (Williams) on the back of the truck. I told you that I thought that would leave us extremely weak and asked if you would get us stronger firefighters."

The day of the fire, another chief came by the station just 10 minutes before the day care alarm and took Williams to get a drug test, leaving only three on the truck.

In his report on the fire department's internal investigation, Deputy Chief Futrell wrote that running a truck with three firefighters is not "optimal," but happens on occasion because of injuries or drug testing.

Wrote Futrell: "The alternative to running short would be to take the unit totally out of service, which would result in decreased emergency response to the affected area. Batallion chiefs are aware of these situations and know to respond additional units to assist if necessary."

Last week, Futrell said fire department administrators would like to discuss the day care fire, but were not at liberty to until the GBI probe is over.

This past Friday, Dana Richardson prepared to start a new chapter in her life, packing up her Buxton Drive home to move to Atlanta.

Three years after her son's death, she still has unanswered questions: No one has ever pinpointed the fire's cause, for example, she said.

Though dissatisfied with how the fire department handled her inquiries, Richardson feels firefighters could not have saved her son's life:

"I have a strong faith in God, and I do understand he doesn't make mistakes, and there are so many things that could have been different that day."

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