FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Prosecutors dropped manslaughter charges Thursday against three nurses who were present when 12 nursing home patients suffered fatal overheating five years ago after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to their facility's air conditioning.
The Broward County State Attorney's Office dismissed charges against Althia Meggie, Sergo Colin and Tamika Miller, but not Jorge Carballo, the home's administrator. He is still scheduled to go on trial next month, and prosecutors said Meggie, Colin and Miller would testify against him.
The victims, ranging in age from 57 to 99, had body temperatures of up to 108 degrees (42 degrees celsius), paramedics have reported. The staff has been criticized for not taking the patients to a hospital across the street that had air conditioning.
Carballo's attorney, James Cobb, did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment. He sent a letter to Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor last week saying, “I’ve never seen a more malicious, misguided prosecution in my life."
He told Pryor that lead prosecutor Chris Killoran has admitted to him that Carballo will be acquitted. He said Pryor and Killoran have “no good faith reasonable belief that you can obtain a conviction of Mr. Carballo.”
Pryor, in a Thursday letter, responded, “I am aware of the challenges ahead; however, we do believe we have a good faith basis to proceed against your client.”
The deaths began at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills 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 facility never lost power.
A state report said that before the storm hit on Sept. 10, 2017, Carballo and his staff made appropriate preparations. They purchased extra food and water and seven days’ fuel for the generator.
Administrators also participated in statewide conference calls with regulators, including one where then-Gov. Rick Scott said nursing homes should call his cellphone for help.
After the air conditioner was knocked out, Carballo and his facility manager contacted Florida Power & Light. When that didn't work, they tried calling Scott's cellphone and county and city officials. No help came.
Temperatures that week were in the upper 80s (about 31 degrees Celsius). On Sept. 12, two days after the storm, serious problems began to arise.
Employees tried to use portable air conditioners to keep the patients cool, but they were not properly installed. The units on the first floor were vented into the ceiling, meaning they were displacing heat into the second floor. That's where 11 of the 12 victims lived.
In an internet chatroom managers used to communicate, the director of housekeeping wrote, “the patients don’t look good.” The report says Carballo never responded but did order the installation of large fans.
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 getting the air conditioner repaired. Paramedics took the man to the hospital across the street, where doctors measured his temperature at 106 degrees (41.1 Celsius). He died five days later.
Carballo told investigators that when he left at 11 p.m. the temperature inside the home was safe. The report found that “not credible.”
At 3 a.m. on Sept. 13, paramedics returned to treat an elderly woman in cardiac arrest, with one telling investigators the home’s temperature was “ungodly hot.” The woman’s temperature was 107 (41.7 Celsius) and so was another person’s. The paramedics were called into 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, undercutting the staff’s contention they monitored 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 other patients, saying everything was OK. Lt. Amy Parrinello said she replied, “you told me that before and now we have multiple deceased patients so with all due respect, I don’t trust your judgment.”
At 6 a.m., fire Capt. Andrew Holtfreter arrived and was summoned to another dead body. A paramedic began treating a patient whose temperature was so high it couldn’t be measured -- the department’s thermometers max out at 108 degrees (42.2 Celsius).
Alarmed by the patients arriving at its emergency room, Memorial Hospital staff went across the street. One nurse said the home felt like “the blast of heat” inside a car that’s been sitting in the sun all day.
The fire department ordered the home evacuated.
Soon, Hollywood homicide detectives arrived -- about the time FPL came to fix the air conditioner.
The home never reopened.