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Questions raised over DC 911 response to fatal crash into Anacostia River

Three people were found dead after a car plunged into the Anacostia River below the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C. late Thursday night, April 20, 2023, into early Friday morning, April 21, 2023. (D.C. Fire and EMS)
Three people were found dead after a car plunged into the Anacostia River below the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C. late Thursday night, April 20, 2023, into early Friday morning, April 21, 2023. (D.C. Fire and EMS)
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A deadly car crash off D.C.'s Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia River on the night of April 20 is raising more questions about the city's 911 response and whether mistakes were made that delayed getting emergency crews to the crash.

Three people were found dead after their car plunged off the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Southeast, D.C. Initial radio traffic at around 10:30 p.m. captures a dispatcher saying “reports of one car in the water at the 11th Street Bridge ---11th Street Southeast.”

RELATED | 3 dead after car plunges into river below Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge: Officials

For reasons unknown to the public, dispatchers sent crews to the 11th Street Bridge, about a mile and a half from the actual crash site.

At least seven minutes later, a dispatcher is heard identifying the correct location of the crash. “Calling party states they were at Anacostia Park and saw the vehicle go off Frederick Douglass Bridge."

“The big question is why weren't they sent to the Douglass Bridge in the first place?” said Public Safety Advocate, Dave Statter. “What we don't know is the answer to that question. And unfortunately, and sadly so far, OUC (Office of Unified Communications) has not provided that answer, even though it's clear that they know it."

For years, Statter has exposed problems at the Office of Unified Communications and was the first to report crews being sent to the 11th Street Bridge, rather than the Frederick Douglass Bridge.

READ | DC 911 call center delays sending help, leading to another death: Public safety advocate

The OUC told 7News it will review the incident at a closed-door meeting this week and will be transparent about the findings.

Last week, the OUC provided a statement to the media about the incident:

"On April 20, 2023, at around 10:30 PM, OUC received one 911 call reporting that a vehicle left the roadway and entered the Anacostia River. Based on information provided by the caller and information presented by location-determining technology, we were unable to immediately pinpoint the exact location of this tragic incident."

Statter is skeptical.

“This would be new from OUC. And if they do this consistently, that's good news,” said Statter. “But up until now, that really hasn't happened on a regular basis."

Under the new leadership of Acting Director Heather McGaffin, transparency has been promised. Yet, 7News reported on multiple incidents since January where people have died and know no details about what happened, including the death of a newborn baby.

RELATED | 3-month-old baby dies in hot car. DC's 911 call center canceled EMS while en route

“They have said that two of them were call taker problems, but they've never told us what those problems were, what mistakes were made, what errors were made in the final moments of these people's lives,” said Statter. “Why won't they share that?”

In fact, despite D.C.'s auditor, Kathy Patterson, detailing mistakes in the death of an elderly man who died of cardiac arrest when the 911 call was classified as a low-level "lift assist" --- taking 20 minutes for emergency crews to arrive --- the mayor's office has stuck to a disproven narrative that OUC acted without fault.

And more than a year after the death of David Griffin, whose story we covered extensively after emergency crews were sent to the wrong location, his daughter, Aujah, is still without the report promised to her by the OUC and former director, Karima Holmes.

READ THIS | Ousting DC's 911 interim director is just the beginning, safety advocates say

“To this day, more than a year later, Aujah Griffin has not been told the truth,” said Statter. “It would be better if D.C. 911 reported the mistakes first, instead of me or you. But I haven't seen it yet. Let's hope this is the beginning for something that we have long wanted to see at OUC D.C. 911."

OUC's Acting Communications Director, Anna Noakes, said Wednesday's closed-door meeting will be with public safety partners to examine Thursday's incident.

"We will go over steps that each agency took and focus on the response of each agency to see if anything can be done to improve responses in the future," Noakes said.

She adds that it's important that the public is aware of these steps. Next week, what's called an "after-action report" will be completed. Noakes said it will be available to the media and the public. While after-action reports are fairly typical, OUC's transparency in releasing them is not.

7News will follow up next week.

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