Homelessness in San Diego

Family Says Firefighters Neglected Remains of Homeless Relative Killed in Encampment Fire

NBC Universal, Inc.

Almost a week and a half after Oceanside firefighters doused a hillside encampment fire, a family made a gruesome discovery. They believe first responders overlooked the body of their 32-year-old transient relative that died in the fire.

Deboroah Otero hikes the same brush hill in Oceanside often. It’s not as a hobby, but to visit her homeless 32-year-old son Gabriel Pritchard. Otero told NBC 7 Pritchard has struggled with drug addiction and was in and out of jail, but he found peace living on that hillside.

“He has all of us. He has his whole family to come to but I still came here to the encampment and I would bring him food. I would sit and talk to him. I would take him to eat. And I would talk to him to please get help,” said Otero.

Now he hillside is no more. There's only charred debris from a fire that burned over a week ago. That was around the same time that Otero said she and her family stopped hearing from Pritchard. They filed a missing person's report and went looking for him themselves on Thursday. That's when Otero's other son spotted human remains and notified police.

“He goes, 'Mom call 911. Just call 911.' And I’m like, 'Why? What did you see?'” remembered Otero.

The medical examiner has not yet identified the remains, but Otero believes they could be Pritchard's. She told NBC 7 that she believes the firefighters failed to do their job.

Oceanside Fire Division Chief David Parsons told NBC 7 that was not the case, and has opened an investigation.

"This is the first time in my 27-year-career that this has happened in a situation that I’ve been involved in. So it’s very unusual. But we do live in unusual times when it comes to homelessness. And truly the amount of calls that we’re responding to that are related to the homeless are through the roof,” said Parsons.

Parsons said the initial call to 911 about the fire was made around 3 a.m. on May 15. The dark night conditions, 20-foot flames, heavy smoke, an incredible amount of flammable debris and firefighting foam used to douse flames created difficult conditions for visibility. Still, Otero said she wants the fire department to be held accountable for not returning at daylight.

“Because they did not care about my son. They didn’t care that he was up there dying. They didn’t care," she said.

Parsons told NBC7:

“We’ve identified some areas that we can improve in process on the backside, but in terms of what the [firefighters] did on scene, they did everything a professional firefighter would,” said Parsons.

The Medical Examiner has not identified the remains or the cause of death. Parsons said they are looking into the cause of the fire, but he does believe it started within feet of the victim.

“We have heartfelt condolences to the family. It means a lot to us because our primary reason for existence is saving a life. And we don’t care if that’s a homeless person, we don’t care if it’s the richest person on the block. The fact that this occurred, it breaks our heart and we want to be there to rectify the situation to support the family,” said Parsons.

Parsons said one of the improvements the department could make is communicating more proactively with property owners so they can easily return to a scene. He said in this specific incident, the encampment was on private property and the overhaul, the clearing of debris and cleanup, was completed.

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