8 minutes pass before cops got sent to home explosion
The priority of the dispatch Sunday was "routine" instead of "emergency," which cost several minutes of response time
By Mike Baker and Gene Johnson
TACOMA, Wash. — Emergency call logs show that nearly eight minutes elapsed between when a social worker called 911 to report that Josh Powell's children were in danger and when sheriff's deputies were dispatched. By the time officers were on their way, the home was exploding in a gas-fueled inferno, with Powell and his two young boys inside.
The priority of the dispatch Sunday was "routine" instead of "emergency," which cost several minutes of response time, and when the deputies arrived 14 minutes later, there was nothing they could do.
The Associated Press obtained the logs Wednesday night under a public records request.
Recently released audio recordings of the 911 calls raised questions about how the dispatch center handled the social worker's call regarding Powell, who was a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife two years ago.
The worker detailed how Powell had locked her out of his house during what was supposed to be a supervised visit with his sons, that she could smell gas, and that she feared for their lives.
Minutes later, Powell torched the home, killing himself and the boys.
The recordings showed that the man who took the 911 call engaged in nearly seven minutes of questioning that ended with him saying he didn't know how long it would be before deputies could arrive. "We have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first," he said.
"I see two problems: The delay in the dispatch, and they dispatch it as a routine call," Pierce County Sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said Wednesday night. "Had our guy been going priority, and had they dispatched it in the first three minutes, we probably could have shaved 10 minutes off our response — but there's no way we get there in time."
The logs show that the social worker called 911 from her cellphone at 12:08 p.m., but it took her until two minutes into the call to find the address of the house. Three minutes after that, the man who took her call transferred the information to a dispatcher, who alerted two deputies about 2 1/2 minutes later, at 12:16.
But at precisely that time, calls began pouring in to report explosions at the house about 35 miles south of Seattle — apparently from the fire blowing out windows.
The first deputy arrived at 12:30 to find the home engulfed in flames.
Troyer said the sheriff's office was disappointed that the initial call-taker left the impression that help wasn't immediately on the way.
"Are we unhappy with the etiquette and the manner? Yes," Troyer said.
He said he hoped the call center will ensure the same mistakes don't happen again.
Recordings of the 911 call show it took more than three minutes for the operator to understand that the social worker was there to supervise a child custody visit — a factor that contributed to the dispatch delay.
The agency that runs the call center, Law Enforcement Support Agency, said it would review the handling of the case and start a disciplinary investigation if necessary. A spokeswoman, Kris Dessen, said it was too soon to say if the response took longer than it should have.
Powell's wife, Susan, vanished in Utah two years ago. Josh Powell has long been a person of interest in the case but maintained at the time that he had taken his boys — then 2 and 4 — on a midnight camping trip in freezing temperatures when she disappeared from their home.
On Sunday, the social worker drove 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charlie from their grandparents' home to their father's house outside Puyallup. Josh Powell lost custody of the boys last fall, after his father, with whom they then lived, was arrested in a child pornography and voyeurism investigation.
When they arrived at the house for the regular visit, the boys ran inside the house, and Powell slammed the door in the social worker's face.
She called her supervisor and 911, reaching the call center in Tacoma, about 10 miles away from Powell's house.
She quickly laid out the situation:
"Something really weird has happened. The kids went into the house and the parent — the biological parent — whose name is Josh Powell will not let me in the door. What should I do? ...
"I could hear one of the kids crying, and he still wouldn't let me in."
Pierce County, the second largest in the state and home to about 800,000 people, has an enhanced 911 system that is designed to give police an approximate location of a cellphone caller. It wasn't immediately clear if the call center used that feature to locate the social worker.
While she was still looking for the address, she said, "But I think I need help right away."
The dispatcher proceeded to question her repeatedly about who she was and her role.
"Who is there to exercise the visitation?" he asked.
"I am," she said. "The visit is with Josh Powell. And he's the husband of ..."
"And who's supervising?" he asked.
"So you supervise and you're doing the visit? You supervise yourself?" he asked.
After getting it straight, the dispatcher told her someone would come, though he wasn't sure when.
Moments later, the house erupted in flames.
Josh Powell's sister, Alina Powell, called 911 about five minutes later to say she received emails from her brother explaining what to do with his property and saying he couldn't live without his sons.
Alina Powell told a dispatcher she feared her brother was going to do something because of pressure he faced after his wife's disappearance.
"I'm terrified to drive over there," she said, sobbing. "I'm not afraid of him. He's never hurt me. I'm afraid of seeing something I don't want to see."
Copyright 2012 Associated Press