Former nursing home workers to be charged in connection patients' deaths after 2017 Hurricane Irma

The air-conditioning went out in the center, but workers said they sought help.

August 26, 2019, 6:10 PM

Four former employees of a Florida nursing home will face charges after at least 12 residents died due to unbearably hot conditions inside the center after the air conditioning stopped working following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

An administrator and three nurses who previously worked at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills are being charged. The Hollywood Police Department scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to announce what the charges would be.

After Irma struck Florida on Sept. 10, 2017, a transformer that connected the main air-conditioning unit to the power grid at the center was knocked out by a tree, according to The Associated Press.

In October 2017, the Hollywood Police Department released 911 calls that captured the crisis at the nursing home after it had lost its air conditioning.

PHOTO: A woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as patients are evacuated after a loss of air conditioning due to Hurricane Irma in Hollywood, Fla., Sept. 13, 2017.
A woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as patients are evacuated after a loss of air conditioning due to Hurricane Irma in Hollywood, Fla., Sept. 13, 2017.
Amy Beth Bennett/AP, FILE

As the calls came in, employees at the nursing home sounded increasingly frenzied as they described patients in various states of respiratory distress. By the sixth and final call, the dispatcher asked whether they'd called already.

"It's for a different patient," the employee replied.

Among those facing charges is Jorge Carballo, the nursing home's administrator. He turned himself in on Monday to Broward County Jail.

Sergo Colin, a head nurse, as well as two other nurses are also facing charges.

"She did the best that she possibly could do under the circumstances," Ilham Soffan, a lawyer for one of the nurses, told ABC News affiliate WPLG-TV on Sunday. "She actually is not a permanent employee. She came in to assist."

A lawyer for one of the accused nurses said his client would fight these accusations.

"They were calling FP&L (Florida Power & Light Company). They were calling the emergency operations center from the governor's office and they were calling the governor himself who was posting his cell phone number on television saying for people to call if there was an emergency. Those people never responded and never came," attorney David Frankel said at a news conference Monday.

The governor's office confirmed in September 2017 that the personal cellphone of Florida Gov. Rick Scott had been called by nursing home officials, seeking assistance.

"Every call made to the governor from facility management was referred to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Health and quickly returned," Scott's communications director said previously.

The center did not evacuate patients immediately as temperatures inside began rising, even though a fully functional hospital was across the street, investigators said.

PHOTO: Police tape surrounds the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla., Sept. 13, 2017.
Police tape surrounds the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla., Sept. 13, 2017.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters, FILE

“It is 100 percent the responsibility of health care professionals to preserve life by acting in the best interest of the health and well-being of their patients," the Florida Department of Health said in a statement. "Let’s be clear -- this facility is located across the street from one of Florida’s largest hospitals, which never lost power and had fully operating facilities.”

The center eventually did begin evacuating its more than 100 residents to hospitals on Sept. 13.

More than 140 senior citizens, some still in their beds, had to be rushed to safety. Some of the patients who were admitted to the hospital had temperatures of up to 106 degrees, hospital officials told ABC News.

Most of the deceased were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues, officials said. Their ages ranged from 71 to 99, the Hollywood Police Department said previously.

The deaths were ruled homicides and a criminal investigation was opened against the center.

The center’s license was suspended days after the storm and it was later closed. Officials for the nursing home have maintained that they tried to alert authorities and the power company that they needed help but never got any.

A timeline released by the public relations firm for the nursing home says that the center's staff had reached out repeatedly to emergency hotlines and the local power utility in the days after the air conditioning system failed on Sept. 10.

In September after the storm, Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the center had contacted the county's Emergency Operations Center to alert the health and medical team that it had lost power. The incident was then reported as a “mission-critical request” to Florida Power & Light for power restoration, Sharief said.

Later that day, the center said it had done a survey of the property and that a tree had landed on a transformer, Sharief said. When asked by emergency workers whether they had any medical needs or emergencies, however, center officials "did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed," Sharief said.

In September 2017, after the residents' deaths, Carballo expressed his condolences to family members of the deceased and provided further details on what transpired at the nursing home.

"The center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma,” Carballo said in a statement at the time. “We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators. While our center did not lose power during the storm, it did lose one transformer that powers the air conditioning unit. The center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was also made to local emergency officials and first responders.”

The center had a generator on standby "in compliance with state regulations," as well as seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator, Carballo added.

After the air conditioning went down, staff set up "mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility," Carballo said. Staff also "continually checked on residents' well-being" to ensure they were "hydrated and as comfortable as possible," Carballo said.

"We are devastated by these losses," Carballo said in 2017. "We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

ABC News' Emily Shapiro, Julia Jacobo and Tara Fowler contributed to the reporting in this story.

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