Fla. county officials demand answers in fatal fire

County commissioners said they want answers to how a 76-year-old woman died in a house fire as firefighters battled the blaze just outside

By John Chambliss
The Ledger

BARTOW, Fla. — County commissioners said they want answers to how a 76-year-old woman died in a house fire in November as firefighters battled the blaze just outside.

"The fact that someone did die," County Commissioner Bill Braswell said. "Whatever happens there has to be a serious conversation."

He said that even if every protocol was followed properly "somehow we've got to figure out how to do everything right and no one dies."

"Something didn't work and somebody died but my experience in investigating plane crashes is the last thing you do is come to a conclusion before you have all the information," Braswell said. "You've got to get data, recordings and interviews, and one thing that is never on a recording is what is that person's state of mind," the longtime pilot and former crash investigator for the Air Force said.

"I'm anxious to find out facts and circumstances," Commissioner George Lindsey said. "Where, if anything, broke down, I don't know."

Commissioners John Hall, Rick Wilson and Martha Santiago also said they want to be briefed on the case.

"I want to get to the bottom of it so we can have answers," Santiago said.


Polk County Fire Rescue officials speaking about fire that killed 76-year-old Loretta Pickard on Nov. 23

Posted by The Ledger on Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Family members of Lorretta Pickard say that firefighters should have done more to save her from the burning home at 13802 Rockridge Road in North Lakeland. Pickard was home alone when the fire started. She stayed on the phone for more than 20 minutes while a 911 operator talked with her.

Pickard's remains were unrecognizable for positive ID after she perished in the blaze; an autopsy was necessary to identify her. The cause of death remains under investigation awaiting toxicology results, said Dr. Stephen Nelson, District 10 medical examiner.

The State Fire Marshal continues to investigate the cause of the fire.

Lance Tompkins, a spokesman with agency, said the fire caused $200,000 in damage to the cabin.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office released communications between firefighters and the dispatcher as they reached the blaze.

It portrays confusion and contradictory communications by Fire Captain James Williams, who oversaw the emergency response.

As the call begins, Williams, who commands Engine 6, says his computer is down and asks the dispatcher if she has any additional information on the call.

"Dispatch to Engine 6, at this time, we've got a caller advising there's someone trapped inside the structure," the dispatcher said. "That's about the only additional we have at this time."

Later, it's unclear from the dispatch log if Williams knows Pickard made the 911 call. "We're attempting to find the house at this time, there's no addresses at the road," Williams said. "Is there any way you can have the caller step out?"

Williams then tells the dispatcher the home is "half-involved." But despite the earlier exchanges with the dispatcher, he asks if she can "get with the homeowner to see if there's any way they can let us know if there's any people that live here?"

The dispatcher then says, "Dispatch back to Command, we advised that there was someone trapped inside the structure."

"Copy that," Williams replied, followed by a communication to Engine 23, "... when you get here, I need your help up here at the structure. Two in, two out, so we can make entry, see if anybody's inside, please."

Minutes later, Williams' boss, Battalion Chief Jeremiah Gilley, asks him if there is entrapment.

"Chief it's too far gone for us to even attempt to make, uh, access to the structure now," Williams said.

"I'm not asking you to make access, I'm asking if anyone on scene has confirmed whether you have entrapment or not," Gilley said.

Williams tells him that there are no "residents on scene at this time, no cars in the driveway, no residents."

Williams then later asks the dispatcher where the resident is located inside the house. The dispatcher tells him she's elderly and in the kitchen.

"Message received," he said.

Joe Halman Jr., the deputy county manager who oversees public safety, said at some point, Williams and another firefighter attempted to enter the home but the log cabin was fully involved in flames. The two suffered minor burns, Halman said.

"The fire was so intense," Halman said, explaining that electrical wires and trees were down close to the home.

He defended his captain and said everything during the fire was conducted properly by Williams and other firefighters.

Halman said the only issue in the case was when Williams sent a Snapchat video of the fire to a female friend. Williams was suspended for a day without pay.

Halman attempted to explain Williams' actions. He said one of Williams' responses to Gilley was about whether anyone was at the home to determine if someone was trapped inside.

"He's only reporting what he knows and sees," Halman said of Williams' statement.

Halman also explained that much of what occurred wasn't described in the dispatch log.

"There are things that happened that are not on that sheet," he said.

Copyright 2019 The Ledger

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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