Pa. Man Dies During Storm When 911 Calls Unheeded

by: dan nephin

PITTSBURGH – With her boyfriend in severe abdominal pain, Sharon Edge called 911 for an ambulance in the early morning hours of Feb. 6. Heavy snow was falling — so heavy it would all but bring the city to a standstill — and Curtis Mitchell needed to go to a hospital.

“Help is on the way,” the operator said.

It never arrived.

Nearly 30 hours later — and 10 calls from the couple to 911, four 911 calls to them and at least a dozen calls between 911 and paramedics — Curtis Mitchell died at his home. His electricity knocked out, his heat long off, the 50-year-old former steelworker waited, huddled beneath blankets on his sofa.

“I’m very angry, because I feel they didn’t do their job like they supposed to,” said Edge, 51. “My man would still be living if they’da did they job like they was supposed to … They took somebody that I love away.”

Mitchell, on disability for depression, had a history of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, Edge said, and had spent nine days in a hospital in late January. He had been home about a week when he was overcome with pain. Autopsy results are pending, awaiting toxicology test results, authorities said.

Now Pittsburgh officials have ordered an investigation and reforms of the city’s emergency services system as Mitchell’s case highlighted key shortcomings:

• Details of Mitchell’s calls weren’t passed on from one 911 operator to another as shifts changed, so each call was treated as a new incident.

• Twice, ambulances were as close as a quarter-mile from Mitchell’s home but drivers said deep snow prevented the vehicles from crossing a small bridge over railroad tracks to reach him. Mitchell was told each time he’d have to walk through the snow to the ambulances; in neither case did paramedics walk to get him.

• Once, an ambulance made it across the bridge and was at the opposite end of the block on the narrow street where the couple lived — a little more than a football field’s length. Again, paramedics didn’t try to walk.

“We failed this person,” said Michael Huss, the city’s public safety director.

To be sure, Mitchell’s ordeal unfolded as the storm dumped nearly two feet of snow on Pittsburgh; the 911 system was swamped with more than twice as many calls as usual and overall emergency response was hampered.

Regardless of how deep the snow was, Huss said it was unacceptable that paramedics didn’t walk to help Mitchell. If they had, Huss believes Mitchell may have survived.

“… You get out of that damn truck and you walk to the residence,” Huss said. “That’s what needed to happen. We could have carried him out.”

The six paramedics on the three ambulances could be disciplined, Huss said. He declined to say what that might be.

Paramedics or firefighters will now be required to go to a caller’s door.

“Everyone needs to get a response,” Huss said Thursday.

That Mitchell died waiting to get to the hospital is a cruel coincidence.