Ellerbe speaks: 10 days after firefighters fail to help dying man DC chief makes first comments


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Previously: Councilmember who once supported DC Chief Ellerbe calls for his resignation; A failure to respond at all levels in the Nation’s Capital

More from Chief Ellerbe’s interview with Will Thomas

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe finally makes his first comments about the death of 77-year-old Cecil Mills. It happened 10 days after Mills collapsed across the street from a Northeast DC firehouse. The firefighters inside the firehouse failed to offer emergency medical care to Mr. Mills. The chief explained to reporter Will Thomas that he knew Mr. Mills, a city employee.

Despite reporter Thomas showing a great deal of empathy for Chief Ellerbe’s decision not to talk on the issue until now and calling the chief “a gentleman” for talking, I have to say it all doesn’t make much sense.  Thomas should have asked Chief Ellerbe this question: What did he say during this interview that he couldn’t have said a week ago Monday when reporter Paul Wagner broke this story?

Listen carefully to the interview and I think you will likely conclude, as I did, the answer to that question is “absolutely nothing”. What the chief said is the minimum he should have said as soon as this became news, not more than a week later.

In addition, there are still many things Chief Ellerbe should have told the public that he omitted. This includes a full accounting of what happened, why Ellerbe didn’t immediately take the crew from Truck 15 off the street after learning of the incident, how the chief will prevent this from happening in the future and his confidence level in the rest of the men and women he leads.

Thomas points out possibilities for Ellerbe not providing details include orders from the chief’s boss to keep quiet and the potential of a lawsuit by the family of Mr. Mills. Yes, both of those are likely.

If those are the reasons, they further illustrate a lack of vision by those in charge. A lawsuit is going to happen whether Chief Ellerbe levels with the public now or not. And it’s possible such a suit may cost the city a lot of money. But a failure by leaders like Chief Ellerbe to provide clear answers in a timely fashion during this type of crisis has the potential to cost such an essential city service the confidence of the citizens it serves. It’s hard to put a price tag on that commodity.

Will Thomas, WTTG-TV/Fox 5:

D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is breaking his silence about his department’s controversial response to an elderly man who died of a heart attack across the street from a fire station.

For a moment during our interview, the chief took off his official hat and revealed something we didn’t know until now — a personal connection to Cecil Mills — who died before help arrived.

DC ELlerbe Mills interview

Ellerbe has known Mills well for years and the chief says he met with Mills’ daughter.

“I don’t want to paint the department with a broad brush because of this single incident,” said Ellerbe. “It’s a tragic incident and it’s something we really wished had not happened and it’s something we’re investigating.”

It is his first interview since 77-year-old Cecil Mills, stricken by a heart attack, died across the street from a fire station, and received no help from firefighters. Mills’ daughter says they refused to help and said to just call 911.

The lieutenant in charge of the fire station is now retiring and will not talk about the incident.

The incident has captured national headlines and the Washington Post editorial board says the firefighters showed callous disregard for a man’s life.

“What I would say to Ms. Mills is what I’ve already said to Ms. Mills: I knew Mr. Mills. He was somebody I knew well,” Ellerbe said. “And she understands that I am sorry for what happened and regret that it occurred. We are an agency that is responsible for taking care of the city.”

The chief got to know Mills during his 40 years in city government working for the parks department. Before his death, Mills was still working for the city.

Ellerbe addressed the question about his ability to lead the department.

“I think if you look at the progress we’ve made, we are leading the department,” said Ellerbe. “I’m not going to say I’ll take the blame. I’ll take the responsibility for the agency and I don’t think it’s unfair. When you’re in these positions, it’s something that you expect and you expect to be held accountable for these types of things, but you also hope to have the ability to hold employees accountable.”

And the chief says that is where the investigation is at currently. The department is looking at the actions of personnel at the station who didn’t come to the rescue of Mills on January 25.

They will look at the role of dispatch and the ambulance crew who went to a Northwest D.C. address and not the correct scene in Northeast D.C.

Why has Ellerbe been rejecting interview requests about Mills’ death?

“This incident is under investigation and generally we do not talk about things like that when they’re under investigation,” said Ellerbe.

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