Fla. FF shocked responding to fatal electrocution in Tropical Storm Eta floodwaters

West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Ben Rigney said first responders were told the power had been shut off, but that the firefighter was shocked while reaching to check the patient's pulse

Carlos R. Munoz
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

BRADENTON BEACH, Fla. —Surging floodwaters from Tropical Storm Eta rushed into a Bradenton Beach home Wednesday night and electrocuted a 65-year-old man.

West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Ben Rigney says a preliminary investigation shows rising waters touched a clothes dryer and sent 220 volts of electricity through ankle-deep water. A firefighter who responded to the incident was also shocked when Florida Power and Light failed to shut down the power grid on the first try.

Residents clear debris from a flooded street in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta. A West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter was shocked while responding to a fatal electrocution amidst flooding caused by the storm.
Residents clear debris from a flooded street in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta. A West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter was shocked while responding to a fatal electrocution amidst flooding caused by the storm. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The firefighter declined treatment and continued working.

Manatee County Emergency Medical Services Chief James Crutchfield says the incident was reported by a 911 caller about 5:30 p.m., as Eta raged within 30 miles of the Sarasota- Manatee area. Winds of about 60 mph shifted to the southwest creating a storm surge between two and four feet high coupled with a tide of about 1.9 feet.

Firefighters and an ambulance were dispatched to 211 Bay Drive N., a home on the Sarasota bayfront.

"When they (firefighters) arrived on scene they felt the power was not secured," Rigney said. "They weren't able to make access to shut the power off to the house, so they called to have the grid shut down. They were advised the power was shut down."

When they approached the victim, a firefighter reached down to check his pulse.

"He got shocked," Rigney said of the firefighter. "It was more a scare than anything else."

FPL was contacted and the power was secured officially, the chief said. They were able to reach the victim, who was identified as Mark Mixon, a longtime barrier island resident. He was pronounced dead in his home.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore says Mixon was a childhood friend.

"He was a good son, family roots," Whitmore said. "Everybody knew him because he sold them their insurance."

Mixon is the son of Patricia and the late Jimmy Mixon. His family recently sold the Holmes Beach-based insurance agency, now known as Waller-Mixon Insurance, and Mark Mixon began a new career path in home remodeling.

Whitmore said fixing homes was the perfect job for Mixon.

"That was totally him. He was a very hard worker," Whitmore said. "Those of us who know him know there was always a soft side to Mark."

Whitmore, who lives on Holmes Beach, recalls only two other times in the 1970s and 1980s when tropical storms have caused so much flooding.

"I remember one time sleeping on the couch when I was younger," she said. "I was working as a nursing aid. I woke up and my clothes were floating by me."

Whitmore said she has sent a letter of condolence to the Mixon family.

"It shows how dangerous these things are," she said."My heart goes out to family about his loss. They are a very well known family on the island. He has taken care of thousands of people in his career."

Rigney said the firefighters who responded were equipped with duty boots that can absorb some electricity.

"They (fire department investigators) deemed it was from the dryer that was plugged in," Rigney said. "The water level got up just high enough to meet the (electrical) connection."

The National Weather Service reports that Eta had east winds beginning in the morning Wednesday, but wind shifted when the storm was directly to the west of Sarasota- Manatee, producing storm surge. Southerly winds last for six to 12 hours.

Official tide gauge information is not available yet, but NWS meteorologist Rick Davis said he believes surge in the area combined with high tides was over four feet in areas prone to southerly tidal flow.

Isolated areas of Manatee County received eight inches of rain.

Conditions were worse than storm surges from Hurricane Irma, which passed Sarasota- Manatee to the east as a Category 2 hurricane.

"By the time Irma got north of us, we had negative surges ahead of the storm," Davis said. "Storm surges weren't significant during Irma. If Irma had been offshore it would have been a significant event for us but we were on the weaker side."

The NWS erroneously reported that 50 to 100 people were rescued from the town of Longboat Key because of storm surge inundation.

There were actually fewer than 10 rescues because of flooding, according to spokeswoman Tina Adams. She found six reports of calls for help.

Two residents were taken to the Manatee County High School evacuation shelter, while two others were dropped off by police at a family's home.

Sarasota County reports a high water vehicle from Fire Department Station 3 located in St. Armands Circle evacuated two people from Longboat Key.

A Manatee County Fire Department unit also assisted with rescues.

Access to the barrier islands via the John Ringling Bridge was closed to nonresidents because of extreme weather conditions about 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Adams said the incorrect NWS report stemmed from a request for assistance made by the deputy fire chief.

"That was a miscommunication," Adams said. "At the time our deputy chief was requesting assistance for transportation of evacuating some of our residents. The village on Longboat Key tends to flood easily. In anticipation of more, we requested some assistance. There was a miscommunication of 50-100 people evacuated. We did not have that at all. Once our chief saw communication come out, he rescinded that and clarified what we needed. We just needed the transportation."

Gulf of Mexico Drive was nearly impassable beginning around the 600 block, even to emergency vehicles, Adams said.

"In this situation, we had more cases on the bay side," Adams said.

— 4:58 p.m. in the 6300 block Gulf of Mexico Drive: A 90-year-old disabled woman reported that she was unable to get out of her home because of rising storm surge. Police found that because of a narrow and overgrown driveway that was flooded, a beach rescue had to be dispatched. The woman was placed in a chair and carried out of the home. She and her son were taken to a neighbor's house on higher ground.

— 7:03 p.m. in the 700 block of Saint Judes Drive: A man called police because of flooding in the area and wasn't sure what to do. The officer explained options to the resident (evacuate now or wait to see if home floods an evacuate then). The resident waited to see if area flooding worsens and would call 911 if his home started to flood. A battalion chief was notified of the situation and possible need for a high water rescue vehicle.

— 8:02 p.m. in the 600 block of Fox Street: The fire department responded to a report of a structure fire at a home. Response was delayed because of very high water. The homeowner reported the smell of something burning in the garage and haze of smoke. He called 911 and evacuated the building. An investigation found a burnt electrical smell. Power was secured and a washer/dryer unit was found to be warmer than usual and taken outside. Investigators believe flooding caused a short.

— 8:36 p.m. in the 600 block of Russell Street: A disabled homeowner reported water entering a house that could be energized. A high water vehicle was used to meet the resident and the resident stated he turned off the breakers. He no longer needed assistance.

— 8:36 p.m. in the 700 block of Saint Judes Drive: A high water vehicle was used to assist a homeowner because of rising floodwaters. Slight flooding was found in the home and the homeowner decided to remain at home.

— 11:01 p.m. in the 579 block of Bayview Drive: About four inches of floodwater entered a home. A neighbor stated he came over and secured the power by shutting off the main breaker. A garage refrigerator that appeared to shorting out was secured. All units were canceled.


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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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