After eight residents died at a Florida nursing home this week following an air conditioning power outage, family members of some of the victims are demanding justice over what they say was a preventable tragedy.
“There are people dead because of stupidity,” Kenny Nova, the ex-husband of 70-year-old victim Gail Nova, told TIME on Thursday. “I felt terrible for Gail. She was helpless. That’s not the way you’re supposed to leave this planet.”
Eight people — between the ages of 70 and 99 — died in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma when The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where they lived, lost a transformer that had powered the air conditioning, facility officials and authorities said.
Early Wednesday, emergency responders swept through the state-licensed, 152-bed facility after receiving distress calls, according to authorities. They found three people dead. Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said more than 150 patients were then evacuated from the center and taken to nearby hospitals. Five more people later died that day. Officials have not yet given the causes of death for any of the victims.
The Broward Medical Examiner’s office identified the other seven victims as Estella Hendricks, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Bobby Owens, 84; Betty Hibbard, 84; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; and Albertina Vega, 99. The deaths were believed to be heat-related, according to Sanchez. Police have launched a criminal investigation into the incident.
The Rehabilitation Center, which is now closed, said its eight residents died “following a prolonged outage of our air conditioning system due to Hurricane Irma.” While the building never lost power during the deadly storm, it did lose its air conditioning due to a downed transformer, according to Jorge Carballo, the nursing home’s administrator. Carballo said in a statement that the facility immediately alerted county officials and Florida Power & Light. Staff members also set up mobile cooling units, turned on fans to cool the facility and frequently checked on patients, he said.
But Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief said the nursing home did not say they had any medical needs or emergencies or ask for further help, according to the Sun Sentinel. The nursing home also had a history of problems, including several violations for having a poorly kept building and giving poor patient care, the Miami Herald reported. The issues led to the facility having a "much below average" health inspection rating, according to the newspaper.
Family members of some of the eight patients who died say they’re left wondering what went wrong. "People are telling me different things," victim Bobby Owens’ daughter, Glendale Owens, told the Associated Press. "But nobody from the facility has told me anything yet." Bobby Owens went to live in the nursing home about a decade ago after he suffered a stroke and could no longer speak, his granddaughter, Tynisha Owens, told the Sentinel. “We hate that it had to end the way that it did,” she said.
Meanwhile, loved ones remembered Gail Nova as a hard worker and devoted mother. She was an X-ray and mammography technician in her earlier years, her son, Jeffrey Nova, told the New York Times. “People died under circumstances where it could have been prevented,” the son said. “I want accountability. I think that’s something everyone will want.”
Gail Nova and Kenny Nova, who is Jeffrey’s father, divorced decades ago. But Kenny Nova remembered his late ex-wife as a “bright light” and a “tender” person. “She was my first love,” the 73-year-old said. “I met Gail and it was electric. The times we shared and the things we experienced, 99.9 % of the time were positively the greatest of the great.”
He said he was angry at the way she died and devastated for his family and relatives of the other victims. “There are eight families that have suffered tremendous loss. No words and no actions are going to make it any better for them,” he said.
“This is a horror story,” he added. “It was certainly preventable. That’s the thing. It was preventable. God almighty. Gail didn’t deserve that. No one does.”