The Houston Fire Department had determined Brays Bayou in Meyerland was too swift to cross hours before a rescue boat attempting to do just that capsized, killing three of the four civilians it was carrying to safety, according to a final draft of HFD's internal review of the incident obtained by the Houston Press this morning. But the long-awaited report still leaves unanswered many questions about what happened during the department's response to the Memorial Day flood and why.
Rescue Boat 42 was carrying four civilians in Meyerland the day after Memorial Day when it capsized. Three of its passengers drowned—87-year-old Jack Alter, his 85-year-old wife Shirley, and 50-year-old Anh Phan Nguyen. The two firefighters manning the rescue boat and Jack and Shirley's 55-year old daughter, Leslie, survived.
An internal After Action Report released shortly after the flood indicated the rescue boat had leaks and holes, and in late September we reported HFD was outmatched and overwhelmed when the flood hit. HFD did not properly train its fire rescue teams for swiftwater situations, lacked proper life jackets for citizens and had difficulty accessing rescue boats stored in flooded parts of the city. The capsized rescue boat prompted HFD to conduct an internal review of the incident.
Jack and Shirley's son, Rory Alter, released a version of the report labeled "final draft" that he received in late September. Alter said he decided to take the report to the media because he was upset that HFD had delayed the report's public release and was worried it would be swept under the rug. Alter also said the report was unsatisfactory and left too many loose ends.
"We as a family want answers," Alter told the Houston Press and KPRC in an interview at his law office on Monday morning. "We deserve answers. But the citizens of Houston also deserve answers. The citizens of Houston want to be justifiably proud of their fire department. They need to know that when they get on a rescue boat that they're not being taken on their final ride, that they are being rescued. This report unfortunately offers our family and the citizens of Houston cold comfort."
The report, dated October 2, described several problems that contributed to the tragedy, including poor communication and failures by rescue crews to recognize potentially dangerous conditions. The report also suggests a lack of proper training and personnel shortages both played significant roles in the incident.
"We have waited many weeks to no avail for the city to release this report," Alter said. "There has been stonewalling, misinformation, broken promises about when the report would be released. It appears to the family as though the city is attempting to sweep the matter under the rug. We had one basic question before the report: why were citizens picked up in an area of rising water and taken to a much more dangerous area, Brays Bayou, which had become a swiftwater current? Why had they been taken essentially to their deaths?"
According to the report, as units arrived in southwest Houston early on the morning after Memorial Day in response to the flood, "heavy debris and unknown obstacles were frequently encountered," but crews were forced to dangerously cross the swift-moving Brays Bayou because command posts had not been established on both the north and south sides of the waterway. Some rescue crews reported that they had struck unknown objects in the water and lost control of their boats while crossing the bayou, but at the time "they did not associate this as a potential hazard." The report does not say whether Rescue Boat 42 was aware that other boats had earlier difficulties while crossing Brays Bayou.
The report also says that rescue crews were stretched thin because many crews were unable to access their boats due to the flooded streets, which explains why there were only two rescue workers on Rescue Boat 42 instead of the HFD-mandated three. The report said the crew on Rescue Boat 42 had been working for 8 hours straight without "relief or rehabilitation."
While the report noted that all of the victims were wearing life jackets at the time of their rescue, all four civilians in the boat were eventually found without life jackets. Leslie told us in an interview earlier this year that her life jacket slipped off almost immediately after she entered the water. The report did not mention why HFD did not use newer, better life jackets that were available in storage at one station house at the time of the flood, and it did not specify what type of life jackets the victims were given on the rescue boat.
Among the report's recommendations were that the department improve its training program for swiftwater rescues and properly budget for such training, add more rescue boats, establish new guidelines for swiftwater training and operations, inspect all of the department's personal flotation devices, and create a certification program for positions requiring "unique, advanced, detailed training."
The report also recommended that HFD hire four more district chief positions to help supervise water rescues and ensure that crews are not shorthanded. But just weeks after the flood, City Council rejected a proposed amendment to hire three district chiefs. Then-HFD Chief Terry Garrison spoke before the council to argue against the proposal, claiming that it would not be cost-effective.
More than six months after the flood, HFD and the City of Houston has still not released the official finalized internal review of how and why that rescue boat capsized. A few weeks ago, we asked HFD spokesman Ruy Lozano when he expected the report to be released. In an email, Lozano said the report was "under review by the mayor's office," and that "it would be inappropriate for us to comment on their expected timeframe." That's pretty much what they told us in September, too. We still don't know what's taking them so long.
Alter said he had been given the final draft of the report on September 25, and *his wife was told by HFD that a press conference was scheduled for October 2 to release the report to the public. Three days later, Alter said he called the city attorney's office to follow up on a notice for claim of damages he filed in late August, preserving his family's right to possibly file a lawsuit later on. Soon after, Alter said HFD Chief Terry Garrison contacted the family and told them that the report the Alters received should not have been released, requested that they returned the report to HFD, and said that the October 2 press conference was cancelled. The Alters returned the report on September 30, the same day Garrison resigned as chief. Alter said he has not heard from HFD regarding the report since then.
"The indications we've received from the city and the media since then is that the city is really not intending to release any version of this report, and that's why we're doing it today," Alter said. "We were hoping this report would provide a comfort to our family and the rest of the city, but we don't think it does that. There are a lot more questions. We hope that maybe this administration can answer some of these questions before it leaves office. I hope they explain why the’ve held the report for so long. What have they been doing? Have they been working on it at all, or is this just a cover up? We hope they provide answers to all of these questions and loose ends."
We've reached out to Lozano and Alvin White, president of the local firefighter's union Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, for comment but have not yet heard back. We will update this story when we do. (*See update)
You can read the full report here:
Update 2:50 p.m.:
Hours after Alter took it upon himself to release the report, HFD spokesman Lozano announced that the department would make the report public. He also sent the following statement:
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"Following the tragic May 26 flooding, the Houston Fire Department (HFD) engaged in a recovery process in an effort to learn all that we could and prevent future tragedies. The report is available for dissemination, but due to pending litigations we are unable to comment at this time. We will continue to look for ways to improve our services to the citizens of Houston, while striving to make the environment safer for our firefighters. As always, ours thoughts are with the families of the victims."
It is unclear what that "pending litigation" is, though we've reached out to Lozano for more specifics. We've also asked him why the report was not released earlier, since the official HFD version has no apparent changes from the version Alter was given in late September.
We'll update again if he gets back to us. (*Update 4:05 p.m.) When we reached Lozano on the phone, he told us Alter's decision to release the report this morning had no bearing on the city's decision to make the report public: "I don't think there was any particular reason [for us to release the report now] other than that we were being complete," he said. It's still unclear what "pending litigation" the department is referencing; Lozano said he's checking with the city attorney's office.
Disconcertingly, the section of the report titled "Actions taken by HFD since May 26th" is also unchanged since Alter received his version of the report in September. Apparently, the department is still "working to locate and identify the cost associated with Swift Water Rescue Technician classes."
*Clarification 12/8/15 at 10:20 a.m.