FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Prosecutors on Thursday dropped manslaughter charges against three nurses who were present when 12 nursing home patients suffered fatal overheating five years ago after Hurricane Irma knocked out air conditioning of their establishment.
The Broward County District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against Althia Meggie, Sergo Colin and Tamika Miller, but not Jorge Carballo, the house administrator. He is still due to stand trial next month and prosecutors said Meggie, Colin and Miller will testify against him.
The victims, aged 57 to 99, had a body temperature of up to 108 degrees (42 degrees Celsius), paramedics reported. Staff were criticized for not taking patients to a hospital across the street which had air conditioning.
Carballo’s attorney, James Cobb, did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment. He sent a letter to Broward State’s Attorney Harold Pryor last week, saying, “I have never seen such malicious and misguided prosecutions in my life.”
He told Pryor that lead prosecutor Chris Killoran admitted to him that Carballo would be acquitted. He said Pryor and Killoran had “no reasonable good faith belief that you can get a conviction from Mr. Carballo”.
Pryor, in a Thursday letter, replied: “I am aware of the challenges ahead; however, we believe we have a good faith basis to pursue your client. »
The deaths began at the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center three days after Irma knocked out a transformer that powered the cooling system at the 150-bed, two-story facility in suburban Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, the installation has never lost power.
A state report said that before the storm hit on September 10, 2017, Carballo and his team made proper preparations. They bought extra food and water and seven days’ worth of fuel for the generator.
Administrators also participated in statewide conference calls with regulators, including one where the governor at the time. Rick Scott said nursing homes should call his cell phone for help.
After the air conditioner was taken out of service, Carballo and his installation manager contacted Florida Power & Light. When that didn’t work, they tried calling Scott’s cell phone and county and city officials. No help came.
Temperatures that week were in the upper 80s (about 31 degrees Celsius). On September 12, two days after the storm, serious problems began to arise.
Employees tried to use portable air conditioners to keep patients cool, but they weren’t properly installed. The first floor units were vented into the ceiling, meaning they moved heat to the second floor. This is where 11 of the 12 victims lived.
In an internet chat room managers used to communicate, the housekeeping manager wrote, “Patients don’t look well. The report says Carballo never responded but ordered the installation of large ventilators.
In the early afternoon, Hollywood paramedics made the first of several visits over the next 16 hours: a 93-year-old man had breathing problems. A paramedic asked about the high temperatures – staff said they were having the air conditioner fixed. Paramedics took the man to hospital across the street, where doctors measured his temperature at 106 degrees (41.1 degrees Celsius). He died five days later.
Carballo told investigators that when he left at 11 p.m. the temperature inside the house was safe. The report concluded that “not credible”.
At 3 a.m. on September 13, paramedics returned to treat an elderly woman in cardiac arrest, with one telling investigators that the temperature in the house was “unbelievably hot”. The woman’s temperature was 107 (41.7 Celsius) and another person’s too. Paramedics were called to a room where Colin, the lead nurse, was performing CPR on a dead man.
Paramedics told investigators the man had rigor mortis, meaning he had been dead for hours, undermining staff’s claim that they were monitoring patients closely. The report says security video shows no one visited the man for seven hours.
Paramedics said Colin tried to stop them from checking on other patients, saying everything was fine. Lt. Amy Parrinello said she replied, “You told me that before and now we have several deceased patients, so with all due respect, I don’t trust your judgement.”
At 6 a.m., Fire Captain Andrew Holtfreter arrived and was summoned to another corpse. A paramedic began treating a patient whose temperature was so high it could not be measured – thermometers in the ward topped out at 108 degrees (42.2 Celsius).
Alarmed by the arrival of patients at its emergency room, Memorial Hospital staff crossed the street. A nurse said the house felt like “a hot flash” inside a car that had been in the sun all day.
Firefighters ordered the evacuation of the house.
Soon the Hollywood homicide detectives arrived – around the time FPL came to fix the air conditioner.
The house never reopened.