The deaths of 12 patients at a Hollywood nursing home after Hurricane Irma struck Florida have been ruled a homicide, officials said Wednesday.
The Broward County Medical Examiner’s office ruled the manners of death of the 12 patients from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as homicides with the causes of death attributed to environmental heat exposure, according to a release from Hollywood Police.
Police say they are now focusing their investigation into the patient deaths ruled as homicides. Those patients are Carolyn Eatherly, Gail Nova, Estella Hendricks, Bobby Owens, Miguel Franco, Manuel Mendieta, Albertina Vega, Betty Hibbard, Carlos Canal, Martha Murray, Dolores Biamonte, and Cecilia Franco.
The patients died in the days after Irma wiped out power to much of South Florida and knocked out the nursing home's air conditioner.
In a letter to Congress released Monday, an attorney for the nursing home said staff had been closely monitoring patients for two days when the deaths began without warning on Sept. 13. He said the temperature inside the facility never exceeded 81 degrees, which would be within standards.
Attorney Geoffrey D. Smith wrote in his letter that from Sept. 10 to 12, the staff monitored the facility's 150 patients and none exhibited any sign of heat exhaustion.
He said about 3 a.m. on Sept. 13, several patients began showing signs of respiratory and cardiac distress. He said the staff summoned paramedics for each patient and followed proper protocols.
"The onset of heat stroke is impossible to predict and can occur in 10 to 15 minutes," he said. He said the elderly are susceptible at 81 degrees (27 degrees Celsius).
He said about 6 a.m., Hollywood police officers and staff from Memorial Regional Hospital, the trauma center across the street, declared a mass casualty situation. Officers and hospital staff members have said the facility seemed excessively hot. Detectives took a temperature reading but that has not been released.
All patients were evacuated to Memorial over the next three hours. Three patients died at the nursing home, five later that day at Memorial and five in subsequent days at the hospital. A 14th death was later determined not to be related. The dead ranged in age from 57 to 99, with most from their 70s to 90s.
Smith rejected criticism that the center should have evacuated its patients to Memorial earlier, saying that would violate established emergency procedures.
"Hospitals are critical facilities that are supposed to be used for individual cases," not as mass evacuation centers, he wrote.
Shortly after the evacuation, an FPL crew arrived and restored the air conditioning's power in 20 minutes, he wrote.
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He said 242 other Florida nursing homes lost power. He said he is seeking information on deaths at other facilities to see if they spiked during the blackout.