Mayor, family outraged after death near D.C. fire station

UPDATE: Thursday, Jan. 30

WASHINGTON – The lieutenant at Engine 26 was relieved of her position and placed on desk duty during the investigation.

EARLIER: Wednesday, Jan. 29

WASHINGTON – A family’s heartbreaking loss has set off new questions about the District’s emergency response, and public safety officials are trying to sort out how a dying elderly man was left unattended next to a fire station.

That’s only the first problem.

The ambulance that was dispatched went to the wrong quadrant of the District — 26 blocks away.

The man, Cecil Mills, ultimately died.

On Saturday, Mills and his daughter, Marie, went shopping for a computer on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast D.C.

After getting a new laptop, Mills collapsed outside the store, unresponsive.

Someone inside the store called 911.

“I said, ‘Dad, Dad, just hang on. Help is on the way,'” Marie Mills recalls.

She and other shoppers who gathered around believed help was coming from right across the street, Engine 26 Fire Station.

People ran up to the fire station and knocked on the door to get help but no one came out, the daughter says.

One community member even ran right up to a firefighter, who said he needed to wait for a superior to make the call, according to Marie Mills.

“I ran to the curb waving my arms, and I said, ‘Please just come and help my dad! Please just come and help my dad!” Marie Mills says.

“Are you going to let my dad die?” she shouted.

The group surrounding Cecil Mills was able to flag down an available ambulance that was passing by.

But at Washington Hospital Center, Mills, 77, died.

“That person standing across the street [at the fire station] with his arms folded, if he had any compassion, you don’t worry about any protocol or procedure when you take a job to help the public,” Marie Mills says through tears.

Mills was a husband of 55 years, a grandfather and a D.C. government employee for 47 years. His family describes him as a man who never met a stranger and one who would do anything to help someone in need.

Word of Mills’ death and the circumstances around it rattled Mayor Vince Gray and other public safety officials.

“First responders respond,” says Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety and justice.

“They don’t wait to receive information, they don’t wait to be invited, they immediately respond, so this is truly something that defies logic; it defies reason; it’s completely unacceptable,” he says.

Quander promises an exhaustive investigation, and officials are already in the process of interviewing everyone involved, from those inside the firehouse to citizens who knocked on the door.

He cautioned the investigation is far from complete, so understanding what happened and why will take some time.

“There was a gap, and there was a misstep that was made,” Quander says.

He expects the review process to expose policies and procedures that need to be addressed.

In a statement, the D.C. Fire Department says it is investigating.

Fire spokesman Timothy Wilson writes WTOP:

“Our duty is to respond to all requests for emergency assistance. If it is determined that proper protocols were not followed at the conclusion of our investigation, then appropriate action will be taken.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Vince Gray expressed his frustration publicly.

“You know common sense and common decency would say you go to somebody in distress,” Gray said.

He called the family to apologize and express his sympathy.

“Our fire stations are places where we expect people to be able to go when they’ve been injured or in trouble or in crisis,” says Tommy Wells, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

He wants to withhold judgment until the review is complete, but he says it’s clear that something went “badly wrong.”

“It was two major errors,” Wells says. “That is extremely upsetting when seconds matter.”

The second error he referred to was the ambulance that was dispatched to an address in Northwest D.C., not Northeast.

Quander says the 911 recording may help explain the error.

The Mills family has planned a service for Feb. 8.

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