“Half the family has just disappeared”

Less than five minutes later, the fire brigade was gone. The four family members, who had already spent hours unconscious, were left unattended and exposed to lethal and invisible gas for nearly three more hours, according to documents from Houston fire and police departments and recordings of 911 calls obtained by ProPublica, Texas Tribune and NBC News. A shipping center operator did not share crucial details about Negussie’s carbon monoxide concerns with the site’s crew, according to records and interviews with fire officials. Police officers never arrived. Neither the Houston police department nor the city’s emergency center could find any record indicating that the fire captain called for help.

When emergency officers returned home near midnight, after Negussie called 911 again, they found Etenesh Mersha, 46, and her 7-year-old daughter, Rakaeb, dead. Her husband, Shalemu Bekele, and her 8-year-old son, Beimnet, were lying on the floor, still breathing. They were rushed to the hospital. Bekele spent days recovering. Beimnet was in the hospital for almost a month.

Shalemu Bekele with his wife, Etenesh Mersha, daughter, Rakaeb, and son, Beimnet.Courtesy of the Bekele family

An investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News in April told the story of the family of Bekele and Mersha and some of the hundreds of other people across the state who lit gas stoves, turned on barbecue grills inside or ran their cars indoors. Try to stay warm after losing power during the unprecedented storm all week.

The investigation revealed that the state’s failure to regulate the power grid and the legislators ’repeated inaction on legislation that would have required carbon monoxide detectors in homes has contributed to the worst carbon monoxide poisoning disaster in the world. recent history. More than 1,400 people were treated in hospitals across the state that week after being poisoned by the gas. Mersha and Rakaeb were among at least 17 who died.

After publishing the investigation, news organizations obtained nine recordings of 911 calls and reports from police and firefighters showing that the failures extended beyond state inaction. The decisions made by people involved in Houston emergencies to leave Bekele and Mersha’s home before making contact with the family, along with similar cases across the country, point to the need for policy changes to avoid these tragedies in the future, six experts in response to emergencies told news organizations. .

In Houston and many cities in the country, first aiders have the discretion to decide whether to force their way into a home based on what they see, the details they receive from dispatchers, and the perceived credibility of the information provided by the person who call 911.

This system was clearly broken in the case of the Bekele and Mersha family, said Mike Thompson, retired fire service battalion chief from Rapid City, South Dakota, who has 27 years of experience in fire and paramedic services. . Thompson said it is critical that first aid get all the information they need to make an informed decision about forced entry, but said emergency crews should also have been on high alert for carbon monoxide poisoning. due to the winter storm. That day alone, Houston Fire Department answered about 100 calls related to carbon monoxide, compared to a daily average of about January 7th.

The key consideration for first aid should be to make sure the person is not in danger, said Thompson, a fire expert and physician at the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. “Keep trying to make contact until you prove you’re wrong,” he said.

On July 23, more than a month after news organizations began asking questions about the incident, the Houston Fire Department began an investigation into the response to Negussie’s 911 calls. Citing the ongoing investigation, department officials rejected requests for interviews for emergency officers and the offices involved in the case.

“It seems to me that what happened in this incident, because the investigation is still ongoing, is that the office did not provide the information necessary for the people of the place to make the right decision,” said Samuel Peña, chief of firefighters. Houston. . “The second response was handled as we normally expect, but they had the additional information that apparently the first crew did not.”

“A thorough review is underway and any breach of policy will be held accountable,” Peña later added.

That February evening, Peña had he tweeted that the department was “extremely thin.” He urged residents to stay safe around open fires and space heaters, make sure they have carbon monoxide detectors at home, and follow safe driving precautions.

But despite understanding the increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter storm, Houston Fire Department officials argued that they should have considered this possibility when determining whether to force to enter the house. These decisions were not so simple given the volume and wide range of calls they received, fire officials reported.

“The incredible demand from the emergency response system (firefighters and police) for the thousands of emergency calls received that week was extremely imposing, but the Houston Fire Department worked tirelessly to meet that demand,” Peña said in an email.

Growing frustration

Forensic records do not provide a moment of death for Mersha and her daughter, but only show the time they were discovered lifeless in different parts of her home.

The car was still running when Bekele and Mersha were found in the garage. Rakaeb died in the living room of the house, while Beimnet was found unconscious in a closet connected to the garage.

Shalemu Bekele’s children, Beimnet, left and Rakaeb enjoyed the snow on the morning of February 15th.Shalemu Bekele

Given the available information, it is unclear why two family members died and two survived. But the result demonstrates why it could be crucial for the first emergency crew to enter the home, said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, medical director of the National Poison Center and an expert in carbon monoxide poisoning.

“That’s so unfortunate,” Johnson-Arbor said in an email. “Time can make a big difference in cases of CO poisoning. While it is unclear at what time the victims died, it is true that previous discoveries may have saved their lives and / or resulted in less significant clinical outcomes for survivors. “

On the morning of February 15, a friend from Colorado was on the phone with Mersha and Bekele’s family when they suddenly stopped answering. She and her husband called 911 in Houston, but did not have the family address. Without him, the dispatchers told them, they could do nothing.

Laila Milevski / ProPublica

The couple spent the next nine hours frantically searching social media for someone who could direct emergency relief at Bekele and Mersha’s home. Finally, they found Negussie’s parents on Facebook and sent a message. “Please call me,” one of them wrote. “Call the police or call me.”

As Ethiopian immigrants whose first language is Amharic, Negussie’s parents decided that their college-educated son, an impeccable English speaker, would call 911.

“My parents have been here for twenty years and they understand the limitations of the language barrier and were unwilling to take any risks in trying to save the lives of their family members,” Negussie said.

Bekele and Mersha had followed a similar path to Negussie’s parents, who arrived from Ethiopia ten years ago in search of a better life. Negussie recalls that his family picked up their cousins ​​at the airport and helped them navigate the complexities of a new country.

Eventually, the couple found work at a gas station. They had a son and then a daughter, and saved their income to buy the three-bedroom house where they planned to see their children grow up.

The two families often shared tea and bread after church, a Sunday tradition, but had lost services the day before due to the weather.

On the day of the storm, Negussie and her parents were huddled under a blanket in their home, which had lost power. While they waited for the firefighters ’notification, they fought over whether to go to Bekele and Mersha’s house to check on them and the kids.

More than two and a half hours after calling 911 for the first time, without hearing anything from the authorities, Negussie called again at 11:20 p.m. After Negussie pressed her, the operator found a record of the call to the record.