Distressing details of a series of 911 calls that could have saved a Houston family from carbon monoxide poisoning have been revealed.
Michael Negussie called emergency services on the evening of 15 February, concerned about his cousin’s family during a freezing winter storm. Their power was out and he had heard that they were running their car to charge their phones.
Unable to contact them, Mr Negussie asked emergency crews to check on the couple and their two children, as he was concerned they had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning.
According to the recording of one of the calls, a fire captain told Mr Negussie that no one was answering the door. Mr Negussie explained again that he was afraid the family were unconscious, so would be unable to answer the door, and requested that the crew go ahead and force entry.
“All right, well, we have units out there. I’ll let them know. I’ll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I’ll get HPD out there,” the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders are required to break into homes.
Tragically, the crew left without making contact, and the four family members, who were passed out inside, were left unattended and exposed to carbon monoxide gas for nearly three more hours.
Documents from the Houston fire and police departments and recordings of 911 calls obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News showed that Mr Negussie’s concerns about carbon monoxide were not given to the crew at the scene. Police officers did not arrive to assist with the necessary break-in, and no records were found showing the fire captain had asked for assistance.
A later 911 call by Mr Negussie in an attempt to get an update on the situation was met with conflicting information and inaction. Over the course of the night, he told 911 operators and fire captains in seven separate conversations that he believed the family was unconscious.
Emergency responders eventually returned to the home at around midnight to find Etenesh Mersha, 46, and her seven-year-old daughter, Rakaeb, dead. Her husband, Shalemu Bekele, and their eight-year-old son, Beimnet recovered, although the boy spent a month in hospital.
The Houston Fire Department has launched an investigation into what went wrong that night.
Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña said: “What happened in this incident, it seems to me, because the investigation is still ongoing, is that the dispatcher just failed to provide the necessary information for the people on the scene to make the appropriate decision.”
“A thorough review is underway and any breach of policy will be held to account,” he later added.
Mr Negussie said he questioned whether another family would have received a different response that night. “The lack of urgency was because it was a Black family in that neighbourhood, and the fire department and the police department didn’t feel that sense of urgency to do something — that there might be consequences if something went wrong,” he said.
Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rodney West denied the allegation, saying; “We don’t look at a geographical map and assign resources differently. Our expectation is to respond to every incident within so many minutes with the appropriate resources, and that’s what we do.”
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