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The children of Medric Mills confronted Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe at a community meeting Thursday night, demanding to know why no one has been held accountable yet for their father’s death and why they still don’t have more answers.
Mills, 77, collapsed and later died across the street from a fire station along Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast on Jan. 25. But, despite pleas for help on the street and someone actually going to the fire station asking for aid, no rescue workers from that station ever came to his rescue.
“My family is looking for definite answers,” Mills’ son, Medric Mills III, said last night, repeatedly adding that there is a total “lack of compassion” within the department. “I have yet to see anyone held accountable for not doing their job. What are you going to do to get this rectified?”
Ellerbee attended the Greater Rhode Island Community Meeting last night at Mary McLeod Bethune Public Charter to hear residents’ concerns about the fire department in the wake of the high profile Mills case. During his presentation, the chief hardly referenced the case or the circumstances surrounding it. (It’s a pending investigation, so he is prohibited from talking specifics.) Instead he largely talked about the department’s new ambulances and what he described as his hold-everyone accountable leadership style. He also defended the cadet training program. On Jan. 25, it was a cadet who was manning the front desk and was unsure of what to do when someone came to the firehouse looking for a rescue worker to help Mills.
“We want to give these young people an opportunity, this [cadet] program provides our young folks an opportunity to come back and serve our city,” Ellerbe said. “I’d fire a whole class before I let them mess up the process.”
But during the question and answer portion of the evening, things got more heated as residents pinned the tragic death of Mills to lapses in the department. One woman said several families have been let down by the fire department and went as far as saying that Mayor Vince Gray lost Tuesday’s election in part because of Ellerbe.
Others came to the chief’s defense, saying he has been used as a scapegoat and this single tragedy shouldn’t reflect on the entire department.
“Washington, D.C. is one of the meanest, toughest political environments that any political appointee can exist in,” Ellerbe said.
But the most emotional part of the night came when Mills’ adult children grilled the chief.
“I’m hearing more and more horror stories about Fire and EMS than I care to hear,” his daughter, Maria Mills, told the chief. “My father wasn’t the last.”
Both Mills’ son and daughter asked why the media and public weren’t allowed to attend a recent trial board hearing for the lieutenant who was in charge of the nearby fire station when Mills collapsed. Ellerbe wasn’t the one who made the call to close the meeting—-that was the head of the trial board’s decision—-but his office did send out a press release the day before the hearing started to the press, telling them to attend the trial board. (The release did note that there was a possibility that the meeting would be closed to the public.) When the press arrived and wasn’t allowed in, the story became about the trial board shutting the media and the Mills family out of the hearing.
Last night, Ellerbe acknowledged that his office doesn’t typically send out releases about trial board hearings, but did so this time because it was a high profile case and he wanted the public to have access to the meeting.
Ed Smith, the president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, the local fire union, said it was “inappropriate” for the department to send out the press release. The union, which had representation at the trial board hearing, has long had tension with the fire department.
“They should have probably weighed out the possible outcomes as not to cause the family or the public anymore discomfort,” Smith told City Desk this morning. “There should have been more forethought into it before they sent that press release.”
The trial board’s decision as to what disciplinary actions the lieutenant should face is still pending, and the chief said he has no control over when that verdict will be issued.
Mills’ son angrily left Thursday’s meeting before it ended and would not talk to reporters. Before he left, he told Ellerbe that he would like to speak face-to-face with the firefighters involved in his father’s death.
“My mother doesn’t have a husband. My sister doesn’t have a father,” the younger Mills’ said. “This is the nation’s capital, and it’s supposed to be the flagship of everything this country stands for and it’s not. “
Ellerbe did not respond directly to that request, but at one point said; “It’s not easy for me [to be here,] trust me.”
“For our department to not render service is something that I found unacceptable,” he said.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery