Help delayed for electrocuted man as 911 calls backed up during storm

Dylan Shawn Cooper was almost home. The severe thunderstorms that battered the Washington region on the night of June 29 had already begun to topple trees and bring down wires as he walked in his Falls Church neighborhood.

Nearby, Nathan Portnoy was in his vehicle when he saw a tree down in the road. And something else, too.

“I thought it was a kid playing a prank, being stupid,” Portnoy said. It was about 10:30 p.m. when he jumped out of his Jeep Cherokee, yelling.

He found Cooper, 19, with his eyes wide open but unresponsive. He was lying on his side. His arm was tucked beneath a downed power line and fallen telephone lines and tree branches surrounded him.

Portnoy started to call 911, but Cooper’s failure to react and lack of pulse alarmed him. He pulled Cooper off the wire and immediately started chest compressions. And he started shouting for help.

Several people came out of their homes and frantically began dialing 911 but couldn’t get through. Cooper’s friends, drawn by the web of teenagers’ text messages, suddenly appeared.

As Portnoy and others desperately tried to save Cooper, there would be no response from 911 for almost 30 minutes.

Hours after Cooper’s funeral service Thursday, the Fairfax County medical examiner said he died of electrocution, the county’s third victim of the derecho.

There’s no way to tell whether Cooper might have survived had emergency responders arrived earlier. What is known is that 911 call centers in Northern Virginia that night were swamped. The storm had struck with only a few hours of warning and it was far more severe than anyone expected and lasted longer as well.

Power lines fell across the region, as did telephone lines. Cellphone coverage was unreliable. Water treatment plants couldn’t filter water. Roads were blocked, and hospitals switched to emergency generator power.

Falls Church contracts out its fire and rescue services to Arlington County, which also staffs the city’s firehouses. Because Falls Church also abuts Fairfax County, sometimes emergency calls will go there as well.

Someone called Arlington’s 911 center shortly after the storm hit to report an electric wire had come down on Haycock Road, landing on top of an unoccupied car. Because it wasn’t life-
threatening and there was no fire, Arlington passed the request on to Fairfax at 10:44 p.m., asking for assistance.

That night, the Arlington 911 center received 518 calls between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., more than six times the volume of a normal Friday night, officials said. The far larger Fairfax County fielded 824 calls between 10:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., a 415 percent increase from normal. Both call centers were fully staffed but, at that point, neither department knew that anyone on Haycock Road was injured.

All that the people standing in the middle of that street knew was that no one could get through to 911. Portnoy, a Virginia Army National Guardsman who served in Iraq, had been trained in combat life-saving techniques. He and another man who helped him clear Cooper’s airways and traded off doing CPR were able to get Cooper’s heartbeat back, then lost it, then got it back.

“It was faint; it was real faint,” Portnoy said.

When Portnoy took a break, someone handed him a cellphone they had been using to call 911. The phone’s timer showed that the call had been on hold with 911 for 12 or 13 minutes, Portnoy said.

“As I put it up to my ear, the call dropped,” he said.

He’s not sure exactly when he flagged down a passing truck and asked the driver to go to the nearest fire station and get paramedics. It could have been when he was pulling flares from his vehicle, to warn off other drivers.

The scene was almost chaotic, witnesses said.

Cooper’s girlfriend had arrived and was crying, as were others. A scuffle nearly broke out over just who was lying in the street until Cooper’s older brother arrived and made positive identification.

At Portnoy’s instruction, someone broke into nearby Haycock Elementary School to try to find a defibrillator, but the device was behind locked bars.

At 10:54 p.m., a call got through to the Fairfax 911 center, reporting a tree across the road and someone lying face down on Haycock. Fairfax officials said that because someone was apparently injured, they immediately dispatched several units.

Twenty-three minutes later, at 11:16 p.m., Arlington’s 911 center called Fairfax and said they had just received a report of a teenager in cardiac arrest at the same approximate location. The first emergency unit arrived at 11:18 p.m., and soon multiple fire-and-rescue squads from both counties filled the street.

Cooper was taken to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington at 11:48 p.m., Arlington’s records say.

The Verizon system that directs 911 calls to the proper call centers in Northern Virginia failed about the same time, throwing the region into a dangerous multi-day period when calls for help could not get through or could not be completed with addresses attached.

However, the 911 system operated properly on backup power between 11 p.m. that night and about 7 a.m. June 30, Verizon has said.

The Federal Communications Commission, the state of Virginia and Verizon are all investigating that outage.

But it was the crush of calls and the overloaded emergency centers that seemed to prevent help from getting to Cooper in those first hours.

Cooper was alive when he went to the hospital and over the next two weeks, many family members and friends dropped by to visit him. He died Sunday.

At his funeral Thursday morning, about 200 people arrived to mourn him, and almost two-thirds appeared to be younger than 25. Cooper loved music, the minister said. He greeted the world with a smile, said his brother. He was “really cool,” said his girlfriend, and he recently got a job making bagels at a bakery as he tried to get his life on the right track. His tearful family and friends still seemed stunned by his death.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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