MANATEE, Fla. — Chaos reigned on Halloween night after an SUV drove through a dead-end street and crashed into a Bradenton retention pond.
Two men from the vehicle were in the water, calling for help. As it sank, neighbors rushed over and dialed 911.
A Manatee Emergency Medical Services lieutenant, Mark Jones, heard the call and sped to the scene; he was the first public official there.
By then, one man had drowned. The other was alive, thrashing in the pond.
Jones did not go into the water to help, and took no other action in an attempt to save the man. Neither did the ambulance crew that arrived next. When the neighbors tried to jump in, the paramedics held them back.
Both men from the SUV drowned.
The victims’ family and friends turned on the paramedics. There was a tense exchange near the pond, and Jones reportedly broke down in tears that night.
But Jones’ decision not to attempt a rescue was made “by the book,” according to his supervisor, Capt. Larry Leinhauser of the Manatee County Emergency Communication Center.
Jones and other Manatee EMS employees are not trained in water rescue, and did not have the proper equipment, such as a rope or flotation device, with them to attempt a rescue, Leinhauser said.
“He did everything the way he was supposed to,” Leinhauser said of Jones.
After a heated town hall meeting with the victims’ relatives, EMS officials vowed to give their paramedics better equipment such as a “throw rope” used to pull victims to shore.
But in Manatee, officials are stopping short of the more extensive training that Sarasota and Charlotte counties provide for their EMS workers. There, some staffers are trained not just to treat injuries and administer medicine, they are prepared to attempt rescues at fires or in potential drownings.
This sort of “cross-training” is embraced elsewhere in Southwest Florida, but Leinhauser said there is a reluctance to train paramedics in anything but their primary medical duties.
Just as paramedics are not expected to run into burning buildings like firefighters would, they are not expected to jump into a pond if they are not trained in water rescue, Leinhauser said.
Besides, he said, accidents like the one near Southeast High School are “so infrequent that it would not make sense.”
The Florida Highway Patrol, which is investigating the accident, has not released its findings yet.
But in a county with a Gulf of Mexico coastline, rivers, swamps, lakes and hundreds of retention ponds, the drownings in late October were not the first time public officials were criticized for not doing more to save someone.
In 2005, the city of Bradenton was sued by the family of a 33-year-old man who drowned in August 2004 while officers stood on the shore.
When two Bradenton police officers arrived at the Manatee River that day, Edward Fegan was incoherent and bobbing in the water.
He was 20 feet away, but neither officer swam after him, according to the suit.
Fegan eventually drowned.
His family sued, claiming the officers were negligent. Fegan’s family would not comment because the case is unresolved.
“I would love to talk,” said his mother, Elva. “Someday I will.”
In that case, however, the officers seem to be backed by the Florida Supreme Court. There is case law that suggests emergency workers have no obligation to save a life, and a 1985 ruling indicates that government agency employees have no “duty” to save a life.
Experts and local officials agree that a “gut instinct” can be a dangerous thing, especially in water rescues.
It seems like a simple matter, that people have a moral or civic duty to save someone’s life, especially if they are a police officer, paramedic or firefighter.
But experts in the field of emergency response say it is more complicated than that, and that by trying improperly to save one life a paramedic could endanger even more.
“Don’t become part of the problem,” said Robert C. Krause, a paramedic and industry consultant. “That’s the first rule. If he goes in the water and something happens, now you have two victims.”
In fact, had Jones or other paramedics dived in, they could have faced disciplinary action for violating a county policy that says paramedics should not act beyond their training, Leinhauser said.
Jones could not be reached, and the county attorney’s office must sign off on any interviews he gives because of the potential of a lawsuit, Leinhauser said.
“Publicly, we would have praised him as a hero if he went in there and saved someone,” Leinhauser said. “But privately, he would have been in some trouble.”
But people who knew the Halloween accident victims Johnnie Schoolfield Jr., 25, and Theo Thomas, 22 just want to know: Why were the paramedics not trained or equipped to handle such an emergency?
While most paramedics in Southwest Florida are not specifically trained for water rescues, some are. These jack-of-all-trades first responders are given special training in different areas.
In Sarasota County, Assistant Fire Chief Paul Dezzi said that some paramedics are trained for water rescues and other emergencies, but primarily are used for routine medical calls.
The same is true in Charlotte County, where eight staffers are trained as “firemedics” and can be called on to administer life-saving drugs, fight fires or pull someone from the water.
The cost of training is not an issue in Charlotte, said department spokeswoman Dee Hawkins.
Some classes offered by the Coast Guard cost about $100, although more specialized courses such as one offered by Dive Rescue International cost about $900.
Still, Manatee EMS officials are adamant that they will stick to emergency medicine instead of water rescues.
But the deaths of Schoolfield and Thomas did result in some changes. Every department vehicle will be equipped with “throw ropes” or flotation devices, and paramedics will be heading soon to a Bradenton field to learn the right way to throw them.
When the ropes were announced at a town hall meeting in November, some people close to the family were happy to see even a small measure of change.
It had been a bitter aftermath. At the meeting, Schoolfield’s mother, Joann Monts, accused the paramedics of watching the men “suffer.”
There was a fight at a candlelight vigil for Thomas and Schoolfield, as their friends tried to attack two women believed to be riding in the vehicle who swam to safety and then fled the scene.
At the vigil, blows were exchanged, police were called and the women ran away.
But two months later, the woman who organized the meeting between officials and the family has taken a new view of the drownings.
Patrice Poole, who is friends with some of the family members and has worked in Palmetto, where they lived, to develop similar community forums, was as confused as everyone else.
But after speaking with the paramedics, Poole returned with others to the pond. She noticed how murky the water was, how deep it seemed, how few lights were there and how far the vehicle must have been from the shore.
“I went back and began to understand what the paramedics were up against,” she said. “At first, I questioned it. I wanted to know why they didn’t do more.
“But it was dark, the water was murky, they were far away. They had to make a fast decision. I don’t think you can blame them for this.”