Ex-nursing home worker charged for roles in heat-related deaths following 2017 hurricane

Published 9:11 pm Monday, August 26, 2019

Four employees of a Florida nursing home where 12 people died in sweltering heat after a hurricane cut power were charged Monday, at least three of them with aggravated manslaughter, their attorneys said.

Nursing home patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, ranging in age from 57 to 99, began dying three days after Hurricane Irma swept through in September 2017.

The center, which housed about 150 patients at the time, did not evacuate any of the residents as the temperature began rising, even though a fully functional hospital was across the street, investigators said. The home’s license was suspended days after the storm and it was later closed.

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Former Rehabilitation Center nurse Sergo Colin and administrator Jorge Carballo were each charged with 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter, according to jail records. Nurse Althia Meggie was charged with two counts of aggravated manslaughter and two counts of tampering with evidence.

All three turned themselves in at the Broward County Jail on Monday and were scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, their attorneys said.

Nurse Tamika Miller was being held in the Miami-Dade County jail on unspecified charges, according to the jail’s website. She was awaiting transfer to Broward County.

Hollywood Police spokeswoman Miranda Grossman said authorities would withhold comment until a news conference planned for Tuesday.

Attorney Jim Cobb said none of the employees understood why they were being charged . He said Carballo and other administrators were repeatedly told before the storm that they could call then-Gov. Rick Scott’s personal cellphone directly for help. Cobb said they called five times, but never heard back from Scott.

Cobb said the administrators “sat there languishing waiting for the cavalry to come. … They never, ever came.”

Attorney Lawrence Hashish remarked that “the real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless caregivers and the evidence will show that no crime was committed.”

Scott, now a U.S. senator, said in a statement that the nursing home should have called 911.

“Nothing can hide the fact that this healthcare facility failed to do their basic duty to protect life,” he said.

But attorney David Frankel insisted that the staff did everything they could to keep the patients, some of them in hospice, cool and hydrated. They brought in small air conditioners and fans, he said.

He also criticized the notion from investigators and some family members of the deceased that staff should have taken the patients across the street to the air-conditioned Memorial Regional Hospital. He said the hospital had been sending patients to the nursing home.

“These were very fragile people,” he said. “Evacuating them could have caused more damage.”

Memorial spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin said she couldn’t confirm that the hospital sent patients to the nursing home. She said the hospital’s goal, though, would be to discharge the patients to a safe environment.

“It is the responsibility of the receiving entity, in this case the nursing home, to let the transferring hospital know if they are unable to accept patients,” Baldwin said.

Memorial’s doctors and staff began evacuating the nursing home after several dead and seriously ill patients arrived in the hospital’s emergency room.

Frankel also criticized Florida Power & Light, which he said was supposed to arrive within six hours after the first patient became acutely ill.

FPL issued a statement Monday noting that some parts of the home did have power restored after the storm, but Frankel said the blown transformer that had caused the air conditioning to fail was never fixed.

In its statement, Florida Power & Light added that “those customers who have electricity dependent medical needs should call 911 if they are without power and in a life-threatening situation.”

Craig Wohlitka and other paramedics from Hollywood Fire-Rescue testified last year that they were haunted by the deaths of patients at the home.

Fire Lt. Amy Parrinello said one of the female patients had a temperature of 107.5 degrees (42 Celsius), the highest she had ever seen in her 12-year career. Later that morning, she said, another patient topped that with a temperature so high it couldn’t be measured.

The deaths at the nursing home recalled a similar tragedy in New Orleans in 2005: Moments after Hurricane Katrina ruptured levees, floodwaters filled St. Rita’s nursing home, rising to the ceiling of the one-story facility in a matter of minutes and killing 35 patients.

The home’s owners, Salvatore and Mabel Mangano, were acquitted of negligent homicide and cruelty charges by a jury that deliberated for less than two hours. Cobb was their attorney.

“The notion of charging caregivers, nurses, administrators … for care that they rendered during a natural disaster emergency … is beyond the pale,” he said.