Last year, 63-year-old Jim Wagner lay dying on the floor of a pool club in Memphis, Tenn., as patrons made one desperate 911 call after another.
But emergency crews took 30 minutes to respond, wasting precious minutes bickering over whose jurisdiction the club was in and dispatchers repeatedly sent ambulances to the wrong places.
Wagner was cheerful and well-liked, and loved playing pool every Wednesday night with his buddies at a Memphis pool hall. But on a hot night, July 9, 2003, Wagner suddenly collapsed of a heart attack while competing in a billiards tournament. First, a female bartender called 911, pleading for help.
"A man has passed out in the club behind a pool table, and he's had a heart attack before," she said.
"What is the address of your emergency?" the fire department dispatcher asked.
"Yes, it's 2686 Kirby-Whitten Road, just south of Summer Avenue, The Billiard Club," the bartender replied.
"Okay, what's the problem?" the dispatcher asked.
"I've got a person that's had a seizure or heart attack, passed out totally, having convulsions," the bartender said.
"We're on the way," the fire department dispatcher said.
Help Expected Quickly
At that point, those trying to help Wagner expected an ambulance to arrive within minutes. But as recordings from the 911 tapes from that night reveal, the dispatcher sent the ambulance to the wrong address, a location 12 miles from where Wagner lay dying. The 911 personnel attempted to make sense of their mistake.
"We're trying to get a good address on Kirby Road," one male voice said. "Truck 20 saying that don't find a 2686 Kirby, and uhhh, do you have a call back number?"
"Hey Sandra, has unit 14 found anything yet?" a female voice said.
"Can someone give me the white pages?" another asked.
Victoria McCutchen was the second person at the billiards club to call 911, and again, the emergency workers could not find the location. "I'm at the Billiards Club on the corner of Whitten Road and Summer," McCutchen said. "We're in the same shopping center as the Family Dollar Store."
"And it's the Billiard Place?" the operator asked.
"Billiard Club," McCutchen responded. After the operator said OK, she urged: "Please, please hurry. They're doing CPR. His tongue — he's done swallowed his tongue."
A Frustrating Wait
Later, she explained that she expected a quick response.
"I just assumed that when you call 911 that someone's gonna be there within 10 minutes at least," McCutchen said. "We were all pretty frustrated. You just know they're gonna be there, but they weren't."
After 15 minutes had passed, with no emergency call help in sight, the increasingly frantic calls to 911 continued.
"We called for an ambulance, could you give me any time on … ETA?" a male caller asked.
"Dispatch: OK sir, we have someone else on the line, they should be there any minute," the fire department dispatcher said.
"What's the name of the club sir?" the operator asked?
"The Billiard Club, it's in the Family Dollar Store shopping center, it's straight across the street from the Gateway Tire," the man said. "I don't care. Get an ambulance out here. This dude's fixing to die!"
Whose Job Is It?
After that remark, the 911 dispatchers and operators are heard bickering, apparently confused about whose job it is to rescue the dying man.
"I don't know the exact name of it, but it is the Billiard's Club is what they keep saying," the 911 operator said.
"Billiard's Club?" the Bartlett Police dispatcher asked.
"Yeah, 2686 Kirby-Whitten," the 911 operator said.
OK, I don't think that's ours," the Bartlett police dispatcher said.
"Oh my God, this is so ridiculous!" the 911 operator said. "OK I don't know what else to tell you. Let me try county," the Bartlett police dispatcher said.
"We got a call at a Billiards club at Whitten Road and Summer," a female voice is heard saying. "Is that yours?"
"Whitten," a male voice said
"Is that Bartlett?" a Memphis fire department dispatcher said.
"It's going to be Bartlett," a male voice said
"That's going to be Bartlett, isn't it? All right, let me call them," a Memphis fire department dispatcher said.
It turns out there were four locations with emergency service personnel within a five-minute drive of the dying Wagner. One, the Bartlett Fire Department, was less than three-quarters of a mile away. Witnesses who helped Wagner say it actually took more than 30 minutes before an ambulance finally arrived. His friends said they had made a total of nine 911 calls before help showed up.
Wagner's wife Dora says she had "no doubt" that her husband would be alive today if a rescue would have responded sooner. Dora said witnesses told her that her husband hung on for a long time.
"I do know that they said that for 20 or 25 minutes he was still alive. That he had a pulse. But that it was weakening," Wagner said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
Jim Wagner died later that night and Wagner says she is working with her attorney on a way to make sure that no one else will wait for help as long as her husband did.
"It makes my heart ache that my husband, who was always generous to everyone, could lie there and got no help. The system didn't work for him," she said.