On The Hot Seat

Lester Tyra's short reign as chief of the Houston Fire Department has been filled with controversy. Can he quench the flames fast enough to save his job?

Twelve-year-old Daniel Lopez looked forward to going back this summer to Houston's east side, where he had lived until he was about four. When his parents split up, Daniel moved to the north side of town with his mom, but even eight years later, the boy still held fond memories of the East End. So when his 21-year-old sister, Yecenia Escobar, her husband and their two small children recently moved into an apartment in east Houston, Daniel convinced his mother to let him stay with the family during summer vacation. He looked forward to riding his bicycle through the neighborhood; he was also eager to play with his four-year-old nephew and eight-month-old niece. Daniel even told Yecenia how lucky -- and how safe -- she and her family were to live around the corner from a fire station.

Fire Station 18 would prove to be neither lucky nor safe for Daniel. Instead, it would ignite a firestorm within the Houston Fire Department that could cost Chief Lester Tyra the job he has coveted all his adult life.

On a Saturday afternoon in June, the day before Father's Day, Daniel stayed at the apartment and watched television while his sister and brother-in-law were out running errands. Around four o'clock, Daniel became nauseated and began experiencing severe chest and back pains. His sister's mother-in-law, Lucia Mendez, was visiting other relatives in the building, and Daniel went to her for help. Since Station 18 was just around the corner on Telephone Road, Mendez took Daniel there, thinking the boy would get treatment faster there than if she called an ambulance.

Daniel Lopez looked forward to playing with his niece this summer near Station 18.
Deron Neblett
Daniel Lopez looked forward to playing with his niece this summer near Station 18.

After the short walk to the station, Daniel vomited. A firefighter allegedly told the boy that he probably had a stomach virus and suggested he go home and take a cold bath. Daniel went home but returned 30 minutes later, pleading for help. Again, relatives say, Daniel was told to go home and rest. Twenty minutes later, Daniel was back once more at Station 18. He still had chest and back pains, and now his stomach was distended. Since Station 18's ambulance was out on a call, Mendez and one of Daniel's aunts say, they were told by a fireman to take Daniel to the hospital in their own car. By the time the women got Daniel back to the apartment, Yecenia and her husband had returned, and they immediately rushed the sixth-grader to Ben Taub. Four and a half hours later, Daniel died of an aortic aneurysm.

On July 31, Sergio Lopez (no relation), a 20-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department who was two weeks short of qualifying for retirement, was suspended indefinitely, or basically fired, for allegedly failing to follow department policy and provide Daniel with proper medical attention. Lopez was the third HFD employee terminated by Tyra in recent weeks in connection with incidents in which someone had died after allegedly failing to receive adequate medical help from HFD personnel. The first two firings, on July 24, were in response to the June 10 death of Jose Ruiz, 35, whom paramedics allegedly refused to transport to a hospital after he complained of stomach pains. He later died at his home. So far, the cause of death is undetermined.

The deaths of Ruiz and Lopez are only the most dramatic examples in a series of controversies that have recently brought the city's fire department under the microscope. Since Mayor Lee Brown named Tyra chief 29 months ago, there have been at least nine episodes (including the two mentioned above) that have raised concerns about the performance of the Houston Fire Department. That equates to just about one flare-up every three months, a rate reminiscent of the rash of controversies that plagued the Houston Police Department back in the late 1970s.

In the wake of the Lopez tragedy, a Houston couple came forward with allegations that in June 1998, Station 18 personnel failed to examine their son or transport him to a hospital after he ingested lighter fluid. The boy survived.

This past January, a Kingwood man collapsed during a soccer match and died after emergency calls were misdirected by 911 operators.

The city's Office of Inspector General is investigating an allegation by a woman who maintains that an ambulance driver stopped for doughnuts while transporting her son to a hospital recently.

On July 13 of this year, Houston City Councilman John Castillo watched from his City Hall office window as a man injured in an accident a few blocks from a downtown fire station waited close to 18 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Amid criticism that HFD fire crews are not adequately staffed, two firefighters were killed in February while battling an intentionally set blaze at a McDonald's restaurant.

This past May, a federal judge ruled that Chief Tyra discriminated against a 57-year-old district chief whom Tyra allegedly decided not to promote because he was too old. The ruling is on appeal.

And in May 1999, in perhaps the most damning of all the incidents, Houston police officer Troy Blando was fatally shot in the line of duty. Following the shooting, it was learned the chief had reassigned an HFD captain to emergency dispatch allegedly as punishment even though Tyra knew the man was hard-of-hearing. When Blando was shot, the hearing-impaired dispatcher fielded the call, misunderstood the address of the shooting and sent the ambulance to the wrong location. Blando died en route to the hospital. Mayor Brown suspended Tyra for seven days, but the chief's critics felt he should have been fired. The Lopez termination has renewed calls for Tyra's dismissal.

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