Death in the newsroom...the 911 transcript

Dateline: Sat 05 Aug 2006

Mpozi Tolbert's respiratory distress was first noted around 6:10 p.m. at the Star photo desk on July 3, 2006, just minutes after he arrived at work for his 6 p.m. shift. This is from people on the scene.

One woman was instantly at his side. Thinking he was having an asthma attack, she shouted out for anyone to bring asthma medicine. She also called security (where she was met with a barrage of time-delaying questions and incomprehension from a guard whose English is not up to speed).

Here is what is most discouraging: The first call to 911 was not logged by the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency (MECA) until 6:18:21 p.m. (!) (Transcript follows).

What happened in those eight minutes or so?

People present that night have said the phone system didn't work or raised questions about the phones. Did they forget to dial 9 to get an outside line? Or were only select phones in the newsroom and security set up to make 911 calls? Are certain phones placed on restricted use after a certain time?

By the time the first call was placed, according to eye-witnesses, Mpozi, 34, had gone from wheezing very loudly at his desk, to leaning and pushing back in his chair, to turning red in the face, to turning blue to unconscious.

He was on the floor and unresponsive when the first call from the newsroom got thru, as the transcript shows (!)

Executive editor Dennis Ryerson said in response to my first posting that 911 calls were made from the newsroom that night, and he was right -- two calls came in. The real question now: why the long delay? Why did only two calls make it -- one from a Page One editor's desk and another later from an assistant city editor's, both higher-level workers not close to where Mpozi was?

No cell calls were recorded by MECA, alththough plenty were placed, according to those present. People in the newsroom, especially younger ones, whipped out cell phones because that's what their generation does and perhaps they realized they might work better than the troubled landlines.

Why didn't cell calls show up on the MECA transcript?

The Star address won't pop up at MECA heaqduarters from a cell phone call. (Cell calls usually bounce off a tower and that tower location is what shows up on the dispatcher's screen.)

Another internal snafu was uncovered thru the transcript: the Page One editor, the security guard and an assistant city editor -- the three 911 callers, in that order -- consistently gave the address as 307 N. Penn. But when the firefighers arrived, that door was locked (It is shut down after 5 p.m.)

I interviewed the firefighters. One said he walked around the building looking for an entrance while his partner drove the ambulance around seeking an entrace. (The first 911 caller did eventually call 911 back to correct the information but by that time the ambulance was at the building).

The firefighers were dispatched from Firehouse No. 7, just blocks away on Mass Ave. They arrived -- in front -- at 6:21:06. They were in the building by 6:22:13 and they left at 6:36:12 for Wishard. He was pronounced dead at 6:56 p.m. at the hospital.

The firefighters confirmed they had problems locating a freight elevator to take the gurney down as they left the newsroom. The first elevator they visited was blocked. Another delay and another safety failure.

This is not about blame of those in the newsroom that night. The transcript makes it clear they are doing all they can to save Mpozi.

The real issue is that Gannett cheaps it out and did not have a decent workable plan in place for a medical emergency. The phone system remains suspect. The blame goes on the fat corporation's heads.

More commentary to follow, but first, the transcript:

(INITIATE 18:18:09, 07/03/06...)

"Fire and ambulance. Your address?"

"I've got a medical emergency at The Indianapolis Star on the second floor."

"What is the address, sir?"

"307 N. Pennsylvania."

"OK, and it's on second floor?"

"Yes."

"Is there a room number?"

"Ah, no just come up in the elevator and you just walk straight away from the elevator and you'll be there."

"And can I have the telephone number are you calling from?"

"444-6276." (This is the desk of a Page 1 editor on the copy desk)

(Sound of dispatcher typing information).

"And tell me the problem, sir."

"Ah, we think possible food allergy. But somebody is having hard, very much difficulty breathing, maybe stopped breathing."

"OK, is he awake right now?"

"Ah, I'm not sure. I'm, I'm about 20 feet away from him. He's barely breathing."

"OK, but he is awake?"

"I, I don't know."

"OK, I need you to tell me if he's not breathing because..."

"They, they, they don't, they're not, he

he's either barely breathing or not breathing at all.

"OK, I just need.."

(Muffled noise, talking to co-workers). "Is he breathing? OK. I've just been told he is breathing."

"He is breathing?"

"OK."

"But he's having difficulty breathing?"

"Great difficulty breathing."

"OK, and is he awake right now?"

"Uh, I, (speaking to co-workers) is he awake? (Then answering dispatcher) No."

"He's not awake?"

"No."

"OK, I want you to stay on the line with me, I'm going to get you some help started for him, OK."

"Thank you."

"Don't hang up."

"OK." (Page One editor to coworkers): "I'm talking to the operator right now. OK."

"OK, sir."

"Yes?"

"I want you to roll him over to his left side, OK?"

"Uh, can you roll him over to his left side? OK."

"Roll him over to his left side and I want you to keep him there and have someone stay with him. Just monitor his breathing until we get there, OK?"

""Monitor his breathing until they get here, OK?"

"OK."

"And we have someone on the way."

Tom Hanify, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana, said Mpozi was hugely popular with firefighters here, having gone with them after 9/11 to New York City. "Our guys loved him," he said.

"For Gannett not to have a good system of calling out immediately and dispatching help -- and there are ways around whatever technlogy is there -- is a shame. It's criminal," he said.

"Every responsible industry, company and individual puts safety first," he added.

On Saturday, Guild Local No. 7 treasurer Judy Wolf said she has been in communciation with Gannett VP James Keough for human resources to address ongoing safety concerns.

But nobody has offered any timeline for when, or even if, CPR or other training would be offered. Nor is there info on providing defibs. Judy believes a committee has been meeting and safety procedures are being reviewed and possibly implemented. (No kidding). However, new emergency phone instructions handed out this week at security were given out randomly, she said. So not everyone got them.

Judy and I also talked, for old time's sake, about the chunks of glass that littered The Star's parking garage floor and surface lot following the severe winds this spring. I had noticed, as I walked the streets near my building the Monday following the storm, that nearby businesses were already at work with crews cleaning up the mess.

But not at the Star. A month or so before I retired (on June 30), I collected enough large glass shards to fill a small manila envelope. I thought maybe I'd give it to Barbara Henry and remind her that the garage still was not cleaned up and that it posed a safety hazard -- tires going flat, people falling and cutting themselves.

I didn't do it, tho. I thought the hell with it. Now I wish I had bugged her.

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