Inside An Agonizing 3-Hour Wait For 911 Response To Carbon Monoxide Poisoning In Texas

Following a 911 call about a family that had fainted, first responders arrived at the house and knocked on the door. No one answered, so they left. Inside, an entire family was being poisoned by carbon monoxide.

Note: Illustrations are not intended to represent the actual responders.
Laila Milevski/ProPublica
Note: Illustrations are not intended to represent the actual responders.

"It's one of those things, if they get there and they have to force entry, they're going to break the door, displace the lock," the captain said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

The power was out, Negussie explained. Their car, he had learned from someone who had spoken with the family earlier in the day, was running in the attached garage so they could charge their phones.

"All right, well, we have units out there. I'll let them know. I'll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I'll get HPD out there," the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders must force entry into a home.

"And you'll keep us updated?" Negussie started to ask. The fire captain hung up before he could finish.

Less than five minutes later, the fire crew was gone. The four family members, who had already spent hours unconscious, were left unattended and exposed to the lethal, invisible gas for nearly three more hours, according to documents from the Houston fire and police departments and recordings of 911 calls obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News. An operator at the dispatch center didn't share the crucial details about Negussie's carbon monoxide concerns with the crew at the scene, according to records and interviews with fire department officials. Police officers never arrived. Neither the Houston Police Department nor the city's emergency center could find any records indicating the fire captain requested assistance.

When emergency responders returned to the home near midnight, after Negussie called 911 again, they found Etenesh Mersha, 46, and her 7-year-old daughter, Rakaeb, dead. Her husband, Shalemu Bekele, and their 8-year-old son, Beimnet, were lying on the floor, still breathing. They were rushed to the hospital. Bekele spent days recovering. Beimnet was in the hospital for nearly a month.

An investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News in April told the story of Bekele and Mersha's family and some of the hundreds of others across the state who turned on gas stoves, lit barbecue grills indoors or ran their cars in enclosed spaces in an attempt to stay warm after they lost power during the unprecedented weeklong storm.

Growing frustration

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

As Ethiopian immigrants whose first language is Amharic, Negussie's parents decided their college-educated son, a flawless English speaker, would call 911.

"My parents have been here for 20 years, and they understand the limitations the language barrier has on them, and they were not willing to take any risks in trying to save the lives of their family members," Negussie said.

Bekele and Mersha had followed a similar path as Negussie's parents, arriving from Ethiopia 10 years ago in search of a better life. Negussie recalls his family picking up their cousins at the airport and helping them navigate the complexities of a new country.

Eventually, the couple found work at a gas station. They had a son and then a daughter, and they saved their earnings to buy the three-bedroom town house where they planned to watch their children grow up.

The two families often shared tea and bread after church, a Sunday tradition, but they had missed services the previous day because of the weather.

The day of the storm, Negussie and his parents were huddled beneath a blanket in their home, which had lost power. As they waited to hear back from the fire department, they wrestled with whether to go to Bekele and Mersha’s home to check on them and the children.

More than two and a half hours after first calling 911, having heard nothing from authorities, Negussie called again at 11:20 p.m. The operator at first said she had no record that he'd called earlier. After Negussie pressed her, the operator found a record of the call in her log.

"So, is there an update? Did you make contact with the people inside the home?" Negussie asked, according to a recording. "I spoke with the fire department earlier. They said the truck was there for 15 minutes, but that's all they could tell me."

"That's the same thing I can tell you," the operator responded.

"I think there is some confusion as to what's going on," Negussie said, repeating his concerns that his cousins had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning. "We do not know if the people we are calling for, the people we want a wellness check done, are well."

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

Negussie was transferred. A different fire captain from the one he'd spoken with earlier that night said he didn't know if the emergency medical services crew had made contact with the family.

The fire captain in the dispatch center said he would have to wait to ask the crew when it returned from emergency runs. But he said the department was "slammed" that night. He couldn't tell Negussie how long it would take for fire crews to return. By the end of the day, crews had responded to more than 2,100 calls, nearly 90 calls an hour and double the department's normal daily workload.

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

"So, we think that these people are on the floor right now as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation," Negussie said for the third time. "Should we go and break through the window and figure it out ourselves? I'm asking you what we should do."

The captain said he couldn't advise Negussie to break into the house and suggested that he call 911 and start the process again.

"If you're concerned that somebody is actually passed out, then I would suggest somebody go back out there and check," the captain said.

"Disappeared overnight"
Negussie wonders what would have happened had emergency responders entered the home the first time.

He can't listen to the 911 calls, he said after the news organizations shared the audio with him. They're too painful.

"Regardless of how well I communicated the problem to the fire department, half of the family just disappeared overnight," Negussie said.

At every turn, Negussie said, his family felt panic and fear. But mostly they questioned whether the fire department would have responded differently if his cousins' family hadn't lived in Sharpstown, a southwest Houston neighborhood that's home to many immigrants and lower-income residents of color.

"The lack of urgency was because it was a Black family in that neighborhood, and the fire department and the police department didn't feel that sense of urgency to do something — that there might be consequences if something went wrong," Negussie said.

Fire officials disputed any suggestion that the response was different as a result of race and social class. "We don't look at a geographical map and assign resources differently," Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rodney West said. "Our expectation is to respond to every incident within so many minutes with the appropriate resources, and that's what we do."

Absence of policies

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

Final call

"It looks empty. Does the caller have any reason to believe somebody's inside?" a firefighter asked the dispatcher.

"We think that a family of two parents and two children is unconscious due to carbon monoxide inhalation," Negussie said, repeating a line he had patiently tried to convey over nearly three excruciating hours.

Laila Milevski/ProPublica

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.