Fire chief: 1 of 2 firefighters slashed by patient nearly died

Attack occurred in back of rescue unit headed to UF Health Jacksonville

By Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor, Jennifer Ready - Reporter, Crystal Chen - Assignment editor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A veteran fire captain who was slashed and stabbed by a patient Tuesday night as he was being taken to a hospital in the back of a rescue unit is recovering from serious injuries, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue interim Chief Keith Powers said Wednesday.

A second firefighter who was also injured in the attack was treated for a deep cut to his leg and has already been released from the hospital.

The incident took place after two firefighters/paramedics responded to a call about a man having back pain about 10 p.m. on Franklin Street. Powers said the patient, later identified as Tony Harris, was calm when they loaded him in the rescue unit headed to UF Health Jacksonville. As the rescue unit drove through Springfield, the patient got up off the stretcher, grabbed a box cutter from the pocket of the firefighter who was caring for him, Capt. Latorrence Norris, and slashed him several times in the upper chest and abdomen, Powers said.

Powers said the firefighter/engineer who was driving, Vinnie Harper, heard the commotion, stopped the rescue unit on Boulevard at West 10th Street and climbed in the back to help subdue the patient. Harper suffered a deep cut to his right thigh.

According to an arrest report, Harris heard something over radio in the ambulance and became irate.

The struggle continued until Jacksonville police arrived and took Harris into custody.

Powers said Norris was bleeding profusely and, as they would later learn, suffered a collapsed lung. A UF Health security guard in a golf cart transported Norris to the emergency room rather than waiting for a second rescue unit to arrive. Powers said that may have saved Norris' life.

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"I can't use the words I want to use right now," Mayor Lenny Curry said. "They're in a situation where they're trying to save lives and take care of people and, frankly, one of them almost lost his life and the other one got stabbed."

Powers says the attack came without warning -- that the patient was initially calm in the rescue unit and not displaying any issues.

"This is just another reminder the first responders put their life on the line every single day," News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said.

Norris has stabilized and was moved to a private room on Wednesday. He was awake and alert and greeted the UF Health security guard who got him to the ER quickly.

Harper was treated and released overnight.

"This was the good Lord looking out after us," said Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters. "Things happened. It just clicked and that’s maybe why we had such a good outcome on this."

Norris has been with JFRD since 2006 and Harper since 2009. 

Powers said firefighters and paramedics often carry knives or box cutters for cutting through items like seat belts to reach victims.

Both Powers and Curry said they would work with law enforcement and prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment for Harris, who has an extensive criminal history.

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