PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A St. Johns County Fire Rescue engineer and communications operator have lost their jobs after an investigation into the initial response to a massive fire that destroyed 20 condominiums in Ponte Vedra Beach.
No one was seriously hurt in the fire, but 30 people living in one building of the Belleza Condominiums were forced to find other places to stay.
A Ponte Vedra Beach woman who called 911 three times to report the smell of smoke, and eventually a fire at the complex, said she isn't surprised by the results of an investigation into the way firefighters responded to the emergency.
A review of the initial 911 calls reporting smoke in the area prompted the suspensions of engineer Alton Robey and operator Lona Williams. Robey eventually resigned and Williams was fired Aug. 2, according to a report released Thursday by SJCFR.
Laura Griffin first called 911 at 4:05 a.m. to report that she smelled smoke when walking her dog. She called back at 4:22.
"I'm sorry, but I didn't see any firemen and, basically, I'm still smelling the smoke out there," she told the operator at 4:22 a.m.
The report found that Engine 10, led by Robey, responded to the initial call about the smell of smoke, but instead of driving into the complex, the engine did a 26-second drive-by of the complex with its windows down on Ponte Vedra Lakes Boulevard.
"This particular method of investigation can be utilized in covering large ares or wildland fires," the report said. "However in this event, an unknown odor of smoke in a condominium complex....would necessitate direct investigation of the indicated area."
The report said that as the lead on Engine 10, it was Robey who made the call to leave the scene, believing the scene "unfounded" after the firefighters did not smell or see smoke during their drive-by.
After Griffin called back a second time, Williams elected not to send Engine 10 back to the condominiums again, the report said.
Griffin said she can't understand why no one got out of the truck and why they didn't send someone out again after the second call. She believes all of this could have been prevented if protocol was followed.
"Williams, as the call taker, should have processed the second 911 call and returned Engine 10 to the scene or engaged the help of Communications Shift Leader Amanda Jasner to make a decision," the report said.
At 4:51 a.m., Griffin called 911 again, holding up the phone so the operator could hear the fire alarm going off.
"It seems to me there should have been somebody that said, 'OK, it seems this lady is very upset, we're not out there, we need to go back out there, even if they missed it the first time, we need to take a second look,' nobody came," Griffin said.
Shortly before 5 a.m., firefighters did return only to find intense flames and smoke coming from Building 100.
"I think if the firemen had come out immediately when they were called and I smelled something burning and investigated the source of that, I think the building could have been saved," Griffin said.
A resident and a firefighter suffered minor injuries from the fire. The resident was treated at the scene. The firefighter was transported as a precaution for heat-related overexertion and was later released.