The Houston Fire Department was ill-prepared for the Memorial Day flooding that killed seven people, according to rescue boat maintenance records and one HFD captain's post-flood incident report.
An internal report filed after the Memorial Day flood by HFD Sr. Captain Wes Hurst said the HFD did not have enough life jackets and rescue boats, did not adequately train its firefighters for swift-water rescues, and generally lacked "critical resources." Maintenance records further show that HFD deployed rescue boats with leaks during the flood including Rescue Boat 42, which was carrying four civilians when it capsized, killing three of its passengers—87-year-old Jack Alter, his 85-year-old wife Shirley, and 50-year-old Anh Phan Nguyen.
The documents, some 230 pages of internal reports related to HFD's response to the Memorial Day flood, were first obtained by KPRC.
A witness statement given to the Houston Police Department by the Alters’ 55-year old daughter, who was also on the capsized boat and miraculously survived by floating on her back down Brays Bayou until she washed ashore, provides a clearer picture of what exactly happened on Rescue Boat 42.
According to the statement obtained by the Houston Press, the Alters were returning from their granddaughter’s high school graduation around 11 p.m. on Memorial Day when Jack, Shirley and their daughter became stranded in the driveway of a home on North Braeswood Boulevard along Brays Bayou in Meyerland.
The Alters waited in the car for hours as heavy rain fell. The daughter told police that at around 4:30 a.m. she felt water seeping into the car through the floorboard. The Alters left the car and stood on the short steps to the porch outside the home.
The daughter called 911 and was told it would take an hour for a rescue boat to arrive. She told police that about a half-hour after calling, a rescue boat drove past them. The Alters yelled for help, but the rescue boat did not stop, she says. Instead, rescue workers on board told the Alters they would be back in an hour.
More than an hour later, the rescue boat still had not returned and the Alters were ankle-deep in floodwater. The daughter again called 911 and was told an ambulance couldn't make it through the water. The daughter pleaded for a rescue boat or a helicopter, explaining to the operator that her parents had health issues, that her mother was diabetic. The daughter said the 911 operator told her they “could not guarantee anything, but would try their best to provide help.”
Shortly after the daughter hung up the phone, the first rescue boat returned. Again, it passed by the Alters, telling them they would be back “in a second.”
“That second turned into about thirty-five to forty minutes,” the daughter told police.
Finally, at around 7 a.m., the boat returned for the Alters. The two rescue boat workers put life jackets on the three Alters immediately, and told the daughter that they planned on taking them to higher ground toward the 610 loop.
As the boat neared the loop, the daughter told police, they saw a man walking through chest-high water. That was Anh Phan-Nguyen, a medical doctor who worked at River Oaks Surgical Center and lived just south of Brays Bayou in Meyerland.
According to the witness statement, Nguyen was safely rescued and brought on board the boat. This account differs from what HFD Capt. Ruy Lozano told reporters later that day. Lozano told KPRC that the boat capsized “in the process of trying to secure the fourth person.”
According to the daughter’s police statement, the boat did not capsize until it got to the bridge connecting North Braeswood and South Braeswood, when the engine “stalled.” The daughter told police the rescue worker was able to restart the engine, but as the rescue worker revved the engine to get the boat moving again the boat’s west side “started to dip into the water at about a 45 degree angle,” tossing the Alters and Nguyen overboard.
“One of the rescue workers did attempt to pull me back into the boat but he could not reach me,” the daughter told police. “Both my father and I then were in the water. My father was crying for help. I did try to reach my dad with my arms. I did not see the two rescue workers or [Nguyen] and I did not see my mother.”
The daughter told police that she then held her breath as she struggled to stay afloat, reaching for the boat and for her life jacket, which had slipped off. She was able to get back to the surface, and the fast current whipped her over to the east side of the 610, where she floated without a life jacket on her back to one of the banks until she was able to stand up.
She then walked, very slowly, back to the 610 loop. Helicopters passed by overhead. She saw a second rescue boat and waved her arms and cried for help. It circled back for her and pulled her in and the rescue workers gave her a life jacket. They took her to a trailer on the 610 loop, where she waited, wrapped in blankets, for an ambulance.
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Recently released HFD maintenance records show the boat that capsized that night, Rescue Boat 42, has had problems for years.
From 2011 up to the Memorial Day flood, HFD maintenance records show the boat had been taken out of service for a total of 24 weeks, suffering leaks and broken parts. In 2011, the boat was taken out of service because the engine “would not stay running.”
In August, 2014, an HFD memo said that the boat had "non-repairable issues with the seams... minor leaks not enough to place the boat out of service." For months leading up to Memorial Day, weekly maintenance checks had listed a “small leak” in the port side pontoon. Earlier in May, Rescue Boat 42 was taken out of service for two days. According to HFD records, Rescue Boat 42 was “KIA” in the Memorial Day flood and is currently out of service.
It remains unclear why Rescue Boat 42 was not replaced or why its problems were not completely fixed before it was deployed in a rescue operation that ultimately ended in three deaths.