MIAMI (CBSMiami) – In the early morning darkness of July 5th, Jack Garcia stood on the dock at Dinner Key Marina and never felt more alone. A boating accident several hours earlier had had already left two people dead and dozen others injured – some critically.
But Garcia’s son, Andrew, was still missing, as was another young woman, Victoria Dempsey.
As the hours passed following the 10:30 pm crash, the number of crews looking for survivors had steadily dwindled. By 2 a.m., the City of Miami withdrew its fireboats from the scene. Several local municipalities, such as Key Biscayne and Coral Gables also went home.
There were reports that the boat crews from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which was the lead agency investigating the accident, had suspended their search during the night. Only the Coast Guard, which had deployed one small boat, was still in Biscayne Bay.
As Garcia looked out on the water he knew exactly what he had to do. He went home and brought his own boat to the dock. Before sunrise he launched, along with to off duty Miami-Dade firefighters. Joining them on the boat was the father, brother and sister of the other missing boater, Tori Dempsey.
“I got there and my boy and the other girl were still out there,” Garcia told CBS4’s Jim DeFede. “I know our guys weren’t there, there was no effective search going on, and I didn’t want to wait two or three days for my son’s body to float up.”
This was not only Garcia’s worst nightmare; it was also an event he had predicted last November. Last Fall, Garcia was interviewed by CBS4 News regarding the loss of the county’s fireboat program. At the time, Garcia was a 33-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Fire Department and was one of the original members of the fireboat program.
“When people die on the water nobody cares or nobody says anything,” Garcia told DeFede last year. “If somebody out there needs help they’re not going to get it and they’re gonna die.”
On Monday Garcia remembered his earlier words and the bitter irony that followed.
“It’s almost like a cry for help that went unheeded, an alarm that went unheeded, warnings that went unheeded,” said Garcia. “It’s unacceptable.”
At about 7:30 a.m. July 5, Garcia’s boat pulled alongside the Dempsey’s body and an off-duty firefighter jumped in the water and pulled her to the back of Garcia’s boat. Dempsey’s father and siblings broke down and cried as the young woman was brought on board.
“It was horrible, I don’t wish that on anybody,” said Garcia.
Dempsey’s father could not bear to see his daughter and described for the off duty firefighter a tattoo Dempsey had on the back of her neck. The firefighter checked and it matched.
Hours later, Garcia’s son’s body was found by a Miami-Dade fire crew that was finally dispatched to the scene, nine hours after the accident. Garcia was there for that moment too.
Garcia spoke at a press conference Monday and said more needed to be done.
“We have to wake up any of you who have sons or daughters, anyone who goes out on the water, don’t stand down, do something about it,” said Garcia.
So why didn’t Miami-Dade Fire Rescue respond sooner and with boats in the water?
Miami Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said that none of the other agencies – Coast Guard, City of Miami, or FWC – asked Miami-Dade for help other than sending the fire rescue helicopter to transport some of the wounded. Downey said no one at the County knew there were people still missing in the water until after 3 a.m. on the 5th.
DeFede asked the chief how he could stomach allowing the parents of the missing kids go out and have the father of Tori Dempsey have to find his own daughter’s body. He denied that occurred.
DOWNEY: That’s not what I was told.
DEFEDE: Well you’re wrong.
DOWNEY: Okay, well.
DEFEDE: Because it was Jack Garcia’s boat with off-duty firefighters that went into the water and pulled that woman out of the bay.
DOWNEY: Okay, that’s what you say. That is not my understanding.
Downey did acknowledge to DeFede the search was not well coordinated.
DOWNEY: One of my problems is there didn’t seem to be a coordinated effort, on our behalf or any of the other agencies.
DEFEDE: I guess that’s the point. Isn’t this exactly what Miami-Dade fire rescue should be doing?
DOWNEY: No I don’t believe we are responsible for coordinating all water-born search and rescues. No.
Downey said it would cost the county about $2.5 million to put the fireboats back in service, but the fire department doesn’t have the money to do it.
Ironically, this issue comes just a day before Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is set to announce a plan to raise the millage rate for the county library system while simultaneously cutting the millage rate for the fire department. He’s doing that so that he can claim he did not raise anyone’s taxes this year.
But in essence what the mayor is doing is taking money from the fire department and giving it to the libraries. The president of the firefighter’s union Monday said he has nothing against libraries, he just thinks it’s unfair of the mayor to pit the libraries against the fire department in this budget fight.
Monday afternoon the mayor tried to shift the attention to the firefighter’s union, blaming the union for not agreeing to certain concessions that would allow one of the fireboat’s back in service.
“Unfortunately, the firefighter’s union blocked the restoring of the fire boats service,” the mayor said in a statement. “When we proposed that for efficiency and cost-saving measures, fire rescue personnel staffed at PortMiami be cross utilized to operate the boats, the union refused insisting that a unit solely dedicated to the fire boat be used instead.”
The union counters by saying the port is required to have a fulltime crew on site under a memorandum of understanding with the port – which pays Miami Dade Fire Rescue to keep the fire station open. And that the port cannot be left uncovered every time the fire boat is called into action.
On Monday, Garcia began making plans for his son’s funeral. He hopes that his son’s death – and the bungled search efforts by the county and others – will spur the county into action and make county leaders realize they need to restore the fireboat program so tragedies like this do not happen again.
“And I’m not saying that my son would be here today, or any of the others that lost their lives would be here today, but they would have at least had the chance to be here,” Garcia said. “We had zero assets on the water. We went from a top-notch, first-rate, world-class, award-winning, EMS service on the water to nothing. We have to wake up. Any of you who have sons, daughters, anyone who goes out on the water, don’t stand down, do something about it.”
Read Jim DeFede’s report from November 6, 2013: County Fireboats: Dead in the Water
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