GBI clears Columbus fire officials of altering day care fire files

Agency continues to probe allegations fire inspection recorders were falsified

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 15, 2013 

Investigators have determined no one tampered with Columbus fire department records related to a 2010 home day care fire that killed one child and injured three others, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Wayne Smith.

GBI agents dug through the records as part of a two-pronged probe into allegations the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services altered records to cover up improprieties in its operations.

District Attorney Julia Slater requested the investigation based on accusations fire department administrators altered files on the 5629 Mill Branch Road day care fire to conceal evidence the first fire engine to respond was dangerously understaffed.

A second allegation was that records were altered to show fire safety inspections were conducted at schools and businesses when in fact they were not. That part of the investigation continues, Smith said.

"There were two primary issues we were looking at," he said. "One was, had the file that is maintained at the fire department that deals with the Mill Branch fire been tampered with, had any documentation been removed, anything like that. And we've determined that did not occur, that the file had not been tampered with."

After authorities determined the day care was overcrowded, the injuries resulting from the blaze spawned lawsuits against the owners.

Because the same fire department records were supplied to attorneys representing the families of injured children, GBI agents had a "snapshot" of those records to compare to the file maintained at the fire department, Smith said, so they matched one set of records to the others.

"It took us a while to prove all of that, but we confirmed everything's identical, everything's consistent, so that was done properly," Smith said.

Resolving that issue leaves the second matter of whether fire inspections were carried out. Agents may need another month to complete that, he said.

"That's where we're still not sure what the situation was, and we're working on that right now."

Responding to a fire

The home day care fire long raised questions of whether the first engine to arrive was sufficiently staffed. It was Engine 7, and it came from Fire Station No. 7 at 5343 Buena Vista Road, the station nearest the day care, just 1.3 miles away.

Summoned to the day care at 1:37 p.m. that Friday, Engine 7 had three firefighters instead of the usual five. A lieutenant was off duty because of an injury, and just before the alarm came in, a battalion chief picked another crew member for a random drug test.

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

The day care was the westernmost of a set of homes set back from a paved semicircle on the north side of Mill Branch Road. That arrangement made it hard for large vehicles to reach the house, particularly when the road became congested with traffic and onlookers.

The fire had started in the storage area of an adjacent carport where flammable materials were stored. It had a gas water heater and an overloaded electrical circuit.

Investigators never pinpointed what sparked the blaze, but they noted that its rapid spread showed it was well-fueled: Once the carport started burning, witnesses heard explosions.

The flames spread to two vehicles and into the attic of the home day care, accelerating so rapidly police officers arriving there could not get in the front door.

By the time police arrived, day care owner Rochelle Jefferson and an assistant had left the burning house with some of the nine children who had been inside. Responding to their cries for help, neighbors and police circled to the rear of the house to rescue other children.

Neighbors Patrick Edwards and Robert Taylor went in through a bedroom window and handed two children to police officers outside.

When Engine 7 arrived, Adams heard witnesses say children remained in the house. In his haste to get in, he neglected to radio his unit's arrival and the fire's status.

He took a 1¾-inch hose and charged into the same front door from which police had just been repelled by explosions and heavy smoke. In the front living room, he hosed the flames back toward the carport and called for Pitts to come in after him, but Pitts never came.

A fire department internal probe later concluded Pitts couldn't hear Adams calling for him.

In the blazing living room, where debris from the attic had collapsed through the ceiling, Adams heard a whimper, looked down and saw a little boy being buried under burning rubble. He grabbed the child and carried him to medics outside.

Meanwhile, other firefighters arriving at the day care swarmed the blaze, dousing the carport and extinguishing a grass fire that had begun to spread from the rear of the building. Engine 6 went to Valleybrook Road, which runs parallel to Mill Branch Road on the north, and came south through the neighborhood to reach the day care.

As they searched the house, they discovered the door to a center bedroom, adjacent to the living room Adams had entered, was blocked by debris, so they breached a wall to get in.

In the room they found a child in a baby carrier between a bed and a wall.

'Absolute tragedy'

The day care had been licensed to serve six children, not nine. Its license subsequently was revoked. What remained of the building has since been demolished.

The boy Adams rescued was 23-month-old Michael "Mikey" Dubard. With third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body, he was airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, said his mother, Dana Richardson. She said that when she saw her son at the hospital that evening, he was so swollen that all she recognized were his teeth.

He died the next day.

In an interview earlier this year with the Ledger-Enquirer. Richardson said she never blamed firefighters for her son's death. She felt they did all they could, particularly Adams, who personally apologized when finally he met her.

"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 failed me," she said.

After the fire, Adams sent his battalion chief a letter complaining he had warned superiors his crew was "extremely weak" without its lieutenant. After the department conducted an internal investigation, Assistant Chief Robert Futrell concluded that running an engine with only three firefighters is not "optimal," but sometimes necessary.

"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," Futrell wrote in his report. "Battalion chiefs are aware of these situations and know to respond additional personnel if necessary."

Still the questionable circumstances and tragic outcome raised suspicions, as did the fire department's leaving the investigative file without a cause for the fire.

Smith, the GBI agent in charge of the probe, said investigators decided aspects of the fire response that would have been suspicious, had they been related, turned out not to be.

Having read the reports, Smith said he concluded firefighters were thrown into a "tragic situation" they handled as best they could:

"I don't see any gross negligence or anything like that in the fire department's response to it. They were doing what they were supposed to, and trying to save lives. And in the heat of battle, there was one child that died."

Though fire investigators couldn't pinpoint the fire's cause, they believe the water heater and flammable materials were to blame, he said. But the blaze "was so hot, so intense, that a lot of that evidence can't be confirmed," he said.

Because the fire's cause was undetermined, the investigative file was left open for further updates. That raised more suspicion, Smith said.

"The file remained open, and we were getting allegations that the motive behind this was so it could be changed as an active file," he said. "What we found out was that one reason it remained open so long is anytime they have an undetermined cause, they leave the case open. It's kind of like our having an unsolved homicide: We never close an unsolved homicide. They never close a fire, where a death occurred, if they can't determine the cause."

Fire department administrators last week said they had received no official notification the GBI had completed this part of its two-pronged investigation, so they still were not at liberty to comment on it.

Smith said an overcrowded day care difficult to reach from the road, and a well-fueled fire pushed by explosions into the house, were catastrophic circumstances.

"It's an absolute tragedy," he said, "but it's not a crime."

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