Stoneman Douglas Investigative Panel Mulls Whether Delayed Surveillance Footage Cost Lives

Nov 16, 2018

It took 40 minutes after the shooting began at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 before medics could reach 10 victims on the third floor of building 12. Only four of them survived.

Members of a state commission tasked with investigating the shooting disagreed over whether more lives could have been saved if medics had advanced to the third floor more quickly.

The delay wasn't medical first responders' fault, according to members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which spent four days this week analyzing the law enforcement and medical response during meetings at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. As previously reported, police hesitated moving up to the third floor of the building because surveillance footage made them believe confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz was still there. The videos were delayed by more than 26 minutes, and Cruz had actually already left the campus.

The commission's chair, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, said the six people who were killed on the third floor likely died immediately after being shot.

"People on the third floor who were deceased — those wounds were not survivable," Gualtieri said. "There is no indication that it would have made a difference as to the deceased victims. These wounds were immediately life-threatening — or life-ending is probably the better way to put it."

Gualtieri noted that first responders rescued student victim Anthony Borges, who was laying on the floor in the middle of the third-floor hallway with serious injuries when they eventually arrived. Borges survived, possibly in part because first responders applied a tourniquet to his wounded leg before carrying him out of the building.

Another commission member, Max Schachter, whose son Alex died in the shooting, said he believed it's possible that the delay cost some lives.

"People could have been saved if they'd gotten in sooner," Schachter said.

Schachter's son died on the first floor, not the third.

"For my little boy, Alex, he probably could not have been saved," Schachter said, holding back tears. "But for the six beautiful children on the third floor," a faster response might have made a difference, he argued.

He also pushed for more people to learn how to stop the bleeding of shooting victims in hopes of stabilizing them as they await first responders. "Stop the bleed" kits are now available throughout the Broward County school district.

Schachter blamed the Broward County School Board for the delay because it has not allowed law enforcement to have access to live surveillance footage in schools.

"[Superintendent] Robert Runcie has to let law enforcement look inside, have access to the cameras," Schachter said. "It's unacceptable that after 17 people died, he is still refusing to do it. I want it done as soon as possible."

Runcie testified during the commission's Thursday meeting. Schachter asked him then to change the policy regarding surveillance footage immediately. Runcie said there were legal concerns about providing that access to law enforcement, but he pledged to try to work through those issues.

Gualtieri said Broward school leaders have shown a "resistance" and "reluctance" to giving law enforcement officers "live all-the-time access" to school cameras. He said school district lawyers throughout the state have different interpretations of whether allowing such unfettered access would violate state and federal laws that protect the privacy of students.

"It's an interpretation issue. It's an opinion issue," Gualtieri said. "In some counties, the school board is giving law enforcement live, real-time access to the cameras, and in some, it is not. This is an issue that should be addressed."

He said his office in Pinellas County is able to monitor the cameras of public schools there in real time.

Overall, Gualtieri said the delay in response to the third floor was the only problem the commission identified with the medical response to the shooting.

"There is no articulable, specific, identifiable void in medical care, other than that 40-minute delay getting to that third floor, which is not part of the medical response. That's because of other issues," Gualtieri said.

However, the commission did examine whether one victim had received inadequate medical care. The commission did not identify the victim, but Stoneman Douglas parent Tony Montalto confirmed she was his 14-year-old daughter, Gina. Montalto declined to comment further. During the discussion, he wiped his eyes with his hands and with tissues and took pictures of presentation slides with his phone.

Gina Montalto was one of the first victims police encountered when they entered building 12. She had been assessed three times by Broward Sheriff's Office medics — the first time, at 2:56 p.m. — and had been identified as deceased with a black tag.

Later, Fort Lauderdale Fire Department medics entered and assessed her without first communicating with BSO. Two of those medics checked for her pulse. One said he felt a pulse and the other did not. In an abundance of caution, they removed her from the school and transported her to a medical triage area. That was at 3:36 p.m. Her death was confirmed later at a hospital.

The decision to move her led some people at the scene to believe she not been provided medical care soon enough, and so the commission investigated that claim, according to Chuck Massucci, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Massucci said her injury was "a contact wound to the chest" that would have been impossible to survive.

"We have to say that the assessment of feeling of pulse was incorrect," he said, "and that the removal of the patient was unnecessary."

Gualtieri said the Fort Lauderdale medics "went in on their own" without receiving direction from police.

Their "improper decisions … led others to believe that she had been left there for this inordinate amount of time with potential survivability," he said.

Gualtieri said he could say "with 100 percent certainty" that that was not true. "She was immediately deceased," he said.

Another member of the commission, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, said he could understand the Fort Lauderdale medic's mistake. At one point in his career, he responded to a plane crash and asked paramedics there to check the pulse of a child victim four times because he did not want to believe that the child had died.

"When you come upon children like that, you want them to be alive," Judd said. "That's what happened with that paramedic. He wanted that child to be alive, and so he reported something that just wasn't accurate."