• The San Juan Daily Star

Dispatcher in fatal fire hung up on victim because he spoke Spanish, lawsuit says

Firefighters responding to a fatal three-alarm fire in Allentown, Pa., on July 27, 2020.

By Neil Vigdor

A group of former 911 dispatchers in Pennsylvania contends in a federal lawsuit filed this month that an Allentown man and his nephew died in a fire in 2020 after an emergency operator hung up on the man because he spoke Spanish — a claim that county officials dispute.

The operator who answered the call from the man, Heriberto Santiago Jr., on July 27, 2020, made no effort to use a translation service as flames were engulfing his three-story home in eastern Pennsylvania, the lawsuit said.

The former dispatchers say in the suit that discriminatory practice was routine at Lehigh County’s 911 emergency call center, and that when they tried to report it and other employee misconduct — such as distributing alcohol and playing the game cornhole during work hours — they were fired or forced to resign.

“Caucasian 911 dispatchers stated openly that they ‘do not like taking calls from Spanish people’ and refused to use a ‘language line’ translation service to assist them in communicating with Spanish speaking residents,” the lawsuit said.

The county is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 20 in U.S. District Court in Allentown. The county ardently disputes that an operator hung up on Santiago before his death.

“That allegation is absolutely false,” Thomas M. Caffrey, the county solicitor, said in a phone interview Monday.

Caffrey said that dispatchers had received two 911 calls about the fire: The first call, at 11:22 a.m., was from someone who might have been a neighbor, and a second, at 11:24 a.m., was from Santiago.

“The fact of the matter is that he spoke to the dispatcher in English,” Caffrey said of Santiago. “The dispatcher indicated to Mr. Santiago that police and fire had already been dispatched.”

The dispatcher was disconnected from Santiago and was unable to call him back, Caffrey said, adding that the police arrived at the home at 11:25 a.m., followed by firefighters at 11:27 a.m.

County officials said Monday that they would make public a transcript of the 911 calls, but they did not give a timetable for its release. They ruled out releasing recordings of the calls, which they said they had initially investigated after the fire and again when they learned of the lawsuit.

“We are releasing the transcript that proves that the allegations are completely false!!!” Phil Armstrong, the Lehigh County executive, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote in an email Monday.

County officials declined to comment about the other allegations in the lawsuit, which seeks the reinstatement of dispatchers to their jobs and compensatory damages in excess of $150,000.

The plaintiffs are Justin K. Zucal, David M. Gatens, Francis C. Gatens, John S. Kirchner, Emily M. Geiger, Julie L. Landis and Brandi L. DeLong Palmer.

Fredrick E. Charles, a lawyer for the seven former dispatchers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Santiago, 44, died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, and his nephew, 14-year-old Andres Ortiz, died of thermal injuries, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, The Associated Press reported at the time of the fire. Their deaths were ruled accidental.

“Mr. Santiago persisted and frantically begged the 911 dispatcher for emergency assistance,” the lawsuit said, adding that the dispatcher “indicated that she did not understand the Spanish language, told Mr. Santiago to speak English and hung up on Mr. Santiago.”

As a result of the dispatcher’s “lack of training, uncaring, negligent, reckless and outrageous conduct in hanging up on Mr. Santiago and failing to take all steps to provide emergency assistance, Mr. Santiago and Mr. Ortiz perished in the fire,” the lawsuit said.

The dispatcher who the lawsuit said had answered Santiago’s 911 call is not named as a defendant in the case. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether Santiago’s family had a lawyer.

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