Loved ones demand answers after 8 people die after Hollywood nursing home AC issue

Facility was running portable AC units, but many say it was still unbearably hot

By Sanela Sabovic - Reporter , Amanda Batchelor - Senior Digital Editor , Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter , Neki Mohan - Anchor/Reporter

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Loved ones are demanding answers after eight people died this week, who were living at a nursing home in Hollywood that was without adequate air conditioning following Hurricane Irma.

"There was a hospital only feet from her door, and there was help only feet away," Jeffrey Nova said. "It's just a chain of events that is hard to come to terms with so early."

A criminal investigation has been launched into deaths of Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.

Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey said one patient died on Tuesday and the body was taken away by a funeral home.

She said the rest of the eight victims died on Wednesday and 145 patients were evacuated. Memorial Regional Hospital took in 141 of those patients.

Storey said the four others were residents of the adjoining facility, Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services. 

Local 10 News reporter Sanela Sabovic spoke to Hibbard's best friend of six decades Thursday morning.

Jean Johnson was the last person to see Hibbard alive at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

She said Hibbard had difficulty breathing the day before she died and wondered why no one was trying to get help for the people earlier.

"What a price to pay. What a price to pay -- not just my Betty, but all the people," Johnson said.

Johnson, who has been friends with Hibbard for 63 years, said Hibbard was in distress when she visited her Tuesday night.

Johnson said she asked for ice, but no one provided it.

"And she was gasping, and when you approached her -- she wasn't really crying, but tears were kind of coming. She said, 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe, Jean,'" Johnson said. 

Eatherly's close friend, Linda Horton, is also heartbroken, equating what happened at the nursing home to murder.

"Why? Why did you let this get this bad? And eight may not be the final number. It's murder," she said.

Friends and relatives of the patients rushed to the nursing home Wednesday after learning that eight people had died.

Most people said the nursing home was unbearably hot, although the facility had portable AC units running. 

"I feel like they should have transferred people yesterday," one woman told reporters on Wednesday.

Evengeline Moulder, whose mother was taken to the hospital, said the deaths could have been prevented if the facility had adequate staffing.

"It could have been prevented," she said. Staffing was short. These people didn't have to die." 

Moulder said her 93-year-old mother, Bertha Aguiar, suffers from Alzheimer's disease and has been stressed since she was evacuated from the nursing home.

Moulder said she didn't know her mother was moved to Memorial Regional Hospital until she saw it on Local 10 News.

"This whole thing had an effect on her nerves," Moulder said. "She kept on saying, 'Alguien se equivoco.' (Somebody messed up)."

Moulder wasn't the only person with family at the facility who found out about the tragedy while watching the news.

A reporter contacted Jeffrey Nova and informed him that his mother, Gail Nova, was among those who died.

"This morning, I received a phone call, believe it or not, from a Sun Sentinel reporter who had asked me to give a biography of my mother. And not knowing what had transpired, I just kept asking her, 'What are you calling (me) regarding?'" Jeffrey Nova said.

Nova said he chose the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills for his mother because it was close to Memorial Regional Hospital.

"That was one of the reasons why she remained there, because she needed care. If there was a need for further care, it was literally feet away," Nova said.

Gov. Rick Scott directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium for the nursing home.

All patients who survived have been removed from the nursing home and taken to hospitals. The moratorium prevents the facility from admitting any patients until the order is lifted.

The governor also ordered the AHCA and the Department of Children and Families to investigate the facility.

Authorities executed a search warrant at the nursing home on Thursday. 

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement that three of the eight patients died at the facility and the others died at the hospital they were taken to.

"Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected," Carballo said.

FPL officials said the facility was not listed at a top tier, critical medical infrastructure facility. The city of Hollywood disputes that, and that's where the criminal investigation comes into effect.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Vendetta Craig had strong words for those she trusted with her mother's care. 

"Shame on you," she said. "For me to have that high confidence in the staff, to trust my mother's care in them. I'm extremely upset. I mean, words -- there are no words. It's unnecessary.

"You can spit on the hospital from this facility. I don't know what happened inside. I wasn't there. I hope the truth comes out. It's just senseless."

A city spokeswoman said in a news release that Hollywood police officers conducted welfare checks on 42 nursing homes, assisted living and critical care facilities throughout the day after the deaths were reported.

One of the nursing homes also did not have AC and the patients were removed from the facility.

Memorial Healthcare Systems has established a hotline for families of the patients who were taken to its facilities for care. The number is 954-265-1074.

Copyright 2017 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.