Two years after an elderly couple drowned as firefighters tried to rescue them during the historic Memorial Day flood, their family has sued the City of Houston, alleging the couple's would-be rescuers were not properly equipped or trained.
Jack and Shirley Alter drowned after the Houston Fire Department rescue boat they were in capsized in Brays Bayou on May 26, 2015. Their daughter Leslie was also in the boat but swam to safety. Another man, Anh Nguyen, also drowned. Over a 12-hour period, much of Houston saw more than ten inches of rain, and more than 1,000 homes were flooded.
The firefighters who rescued the Alters from the porch of their son's home that morning equipped each passenger with a Type II life jacket. But those flotation devices are not designed for swift-water situations, and the firefighters themselves wore Type V life jackets, which are made for precisely that type of emergency. Because of this oversight, the suit charges that the firefighters were negligent.
The suit seeks damages for, among other things, the physical suffering and mental anguish of the Alters prior to their deaths, as well as mental anguish and loss of companionship for their children. It does not seek a specific monetary award.
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Jack and Shirley Alter had spent the last evening of their lives celebrating the graduation of their granddaughter, which is why they were visiting their son's Meyerland home. Shirley's body was discovered in Brays Bayou, but her husband's drifted all the way to the Port of Houston and was not discovered for nearly 36 hours. Both of their life jackets had fallen off and were not recovered.
An internal Houston Fire Department investigation found serious shortcomings in the agency's capabilities during the Memorial Day Flood, as we reported in our 2015 cover story, "Flood City":
The report, written by an HFD captain who was on duty that day, described a department that did not properly train its water rescue crews, lacked proper life jackets for citizens and had difficulty accessing rescue boats stored in flooded parts of the city. When Houston’s bayous overflowed on Memorial Day, the department was simply outmatched and overwhelmed.
The city of Houston has yet to formally respond to the lawsuit.