Frantic 911 calls describe scene of fire

Officials defend response process

January 27, 2007|By Josh Mitchell and Mary Gail Hare | Josh Mitchell and Mary Gail Hare,sun reporters

The frantic caller repeatedly refers to screams from the burning house, at one point telling an emergency dispatcher, "You got people hollering' hon. Come on. Please hurry."

"There are kids in the house in here hollering," the man says.

"The house is on fire?" asks the dispatcher calmly.

"The house is on fire. People's in there, dear."

The call was the first and most dramatic of the flurry of a dozen 911 calls received by Harford County emergency operations dispatchers in a span of about two minutes during a Jan. 18 house fire in Abingdon that killed five people. County officials released recordings of the calls yesterday and also said that a review of the response to the blaze found no errors by dispatchers or firefighters.

The fast-burning fire, believed to be the county's deadliest, killed a couple and three of their grandchildren in their 100-year-old house on Philadelphia Road. Investigators are trying to determine the cause.

County officials yesterday blamed the deaths on "bad luck" and an apparent lack of smoke detectors in the house, though family members say the house contained several detectors.

"The call takers and dispatchers involved in this tragedy exercised appropriate judgment and performed in a professional manner under very difficult circumstances," Ernie Crist, the county's emergency operations chief, said at a news conference at the county's emergency operations center in Forest Hill.

Crist also responded to criticism of how long it took dispatchers and firefighters to respond; that criticism surfaced on a Web site shortly after the fire. The comments, posted anonymously, included what appeared to be a timeline of when dispatchers took calls and when firefighters arrived on the scene.

"This is my opinion and my opinion only, but there's nothing that should've caused a 5 minute delay in dispatching a dwelling fire with rescue," read one entry read, posted on TheWatchDesk.com.

Officials have said those times are inaccurate, and yesterday they said the online criticism refers to the times "hand-stamped" by emergency dispatchers. Those times are sometimes inaccurate because dispatchers are often busy with multiple tasks and don't record times at the moment that events occur, officials said.

An official timeline released yesterday was created directly from 911 tapes and is more accurate, officials said. The timeline shows firefighters were dispatched three minutes and five seconds after the first call came in.

The nearest station, Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company, which is eight-tenths of a mile from the house, sent its ambulance crew to the fire, but could not immediately send its fire engine because the certified driver on duty was out taking a vehicle to a service shop.

"What happened was just bad luck for Abingdon," said Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the county's volunteer firefighters. "You can't plan when emergencies are going to happen."

Even before the Abingdon fire, members of the Harford County Fire and Emergency Services Association had been discussing the possibility of hiring certified engine drivers, particularly for stations at the more densely populated southern end of the county, Gardiner said.

"We have been talking in general about paid personnel to implement volunteers at the stations," Gardiner said. "This is not something you can do overnight. We know we will need this in the future. When, we don't know, but we want to be ready."

"We do admit there are issues with response times," he added.

The 911 tapes released yesterday contain 12 conversations between callers and dispatchers, all from cell phones and many from callers unfamiliar with the area.

"You can't just say Philadelphia Road," said Sue Collins, EOC spokesman. "There are 26 miles of that road in Harford County."

During the first call, which lasted two minutes, the dispatcher repeatedly presses the caller for an exact location, even as the caller says the fire is near Abingdon and Philadelphia roads below McComas Funeral Home. Officials did not identify the caller.

About halfway through the call, a male voice in the background can be heard telling the caller, "They ain't yellin' now."

"The kids ain't yellin' no more," the man then tells the dispatcher.

Investigators say the victims were likely dead from smoke inhalation by then.

A county maintenance crew in the area spotted smoke and pulled into the home's driveway.

"The house was so hot that they couldn't get close," Crist said. "Then their truck, which was several yards away, was so hot that they couldn't touch it."

W. Faron Taylor, spokesman for the state fire marshal's office, said yesterday that investigators are trying to determine a cause of the fire.

The Shropshire family will gather today for a noon funeral service for the five victims at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

To hear the 911 calls, go to baltimoresun.com/abingdonfire.

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