The nursing home expresses "deepest sympathies" and is "devastated by these losses"
Medical examiner still investigating whether deaths are considered heat-related
For three days, the staff at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills scrambled to keep residents hydrated and cool after a tree fell onto a transformer that powered the air conditioning system.
By Wednesday, eight of the nursing home’s residents had died. The causes of the deaths are under investigation to see if any of them were heat-related, said Raelin Storey, director of public affairs for the City of Hollywood.
“The initial investigation has determined that the facility’s air conditioning system was not fully functional,” the city of Hollywood, Florida, said in a statement. “Portable A/C units were being used in the facility, but the facility was excessively hot.”
The nursing home said it was prepped for Hurricane Irma. The power generator was working, and the staff stocked up on seven days’ worth of food and water. But they didn’t anticipate they would still have to fight the intense heat with fans and portable air conditioner units.
“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills expresses its deepest sympathy to the family members of the residents who passed away following a prolonged outage of our air conditioning system due to Hurricane Irma,” the nursing home said in a statement.
“We are devastated by these losses. We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered an emergency moratorium on Wednesday to prevent the facility from admitting new patients.
Three agencies have launched investigations into how this happened, but many questions remain unanswered. A criminal investigation is also underway, and a search warrant has been signed for the Hollywood Police Department, according to city officials.
“I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” Scott said in a statement. “If they find that this facility was not meeting the state’s high standards of care, they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
What happened – and when
Families are struggling to understand what happened to their loved ones who died, who ranged in ages from 71 to 99. But here’s what we do know, according to Hollywood city officials:
Tuesday morning: The nursing home told the Broward County Emergency Operations Center that it had lost power, according to a statement by the center. A “mission-critical” request to restore power was made to Florida Power & Light. The nursing home was asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said in the center’s statement. No assistance was requested.
That day, one patient was found dead and taken to a funeral home. The patient had a do-not-resuscitate order, according to Hollywood city spokeswoman Raelin Storey. No one called authorities to alert them, Storey said.
3 a.m. Wednesday: Someone called 911 for a patient suffering cardiac arrest. That patient was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital.
4 a.m. Wednesday: A second 911 call came in to transport another resident with breathing problems.
After the second call was completed, a fire lieutenant notified a battalion chief and called the Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.
Shortly thereafter: A third 911 call came in for yet another patient transport – this time prompting the fire department to send more crews to the nursing home to investigate.
In addition to the resident taken to a funeral home on Tuesday, three others were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home, and several others were in distress.
Around 5 or 5:30, Judy Frum, chief nursing officer at Memorial Regional Hospital, noticed that patients were coming to the emergency room with “extraordinarily high temps.”
Since the hospital was a stone’s throw away from the nursing home, Frum decided to walk over and investigate.
What she saw – the patients in distress, the unbearable heat – prompted her to trigger the hospital’s mass-casualty alert.
“The temperature in that room would’ve definitely been a concern for anybody, not just the elderly,” Frum told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen.
9:15 a.m. Wednesday: In all, 141 patients had been evacuated from the nursing home and were being evaluated by paramedics and hospital staff. Another four patients were evacuated from an adjacent behavioral health facility.
Paramedics rushed to evacuate the sweltering facility, but four more nursing home patients died in hospitals.
’I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’
Jeffrey Nova had been calling the nursing home where his mom lived, but he couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone since Sunday.
Still, that didn’t strike him as unusual, he said – communicating with the staff had always been like “pulling teeth.”
Finally on Wednesday, he learned that his mother, Gail Nova, 71, was one of eight residents who died at the facility.
“I’m not quite clear on how this happened,” Jeffrey Nova said.
He said he learned of his mother’s death not from the facility, but from a reporter who got his name and contact info from a nursing home employee.
Betty Hibbard, 84, another one of the victims, was alive but extremely uncomfortable on Tuesday when her friend Jean Johnson came to visit.
“We went by to see her the day before she passed away,” Johnson told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. It was “terribly hot,” she added, but at least the elevator was working.
“I’ve been there sometimes when it didn’t,” she said.
Without air conditioning, residents were kept in hallways near the cooling units as the days passed.
“She was sitting in front of a blower, and she almost cried,” Johnson said of Hibbard. “She says, ‘Jean, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ I said, ‘Honey, please don’t talk.’ “