CINCINNATI — A Cincinnati 911 operator who took a call Tuesday afternoon from a teen being crushed by a seat in his minivan has been placed on leave for not relaying a description of the van to officers searching for the 16-year-old.
Kyle Jacob Plush called 911 twice while he slowly suffocated to death. Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Issac said Thursday that he has initiated an internal investigation into everyone involved in handling the calls, but that dispatcher Amber Smith has been placed on administrative leave.
Smith was placed on leave because dispatch records show that she did not relay to responding officers the make, model and color of Plush’s vehicle. The teen told her that he was trapped in a gold Honda Odyssey in the parking lot of Seven Hills School, where he was a student.
City police officers searched the multiple parking areas on campus but did not see anything suspicious. A Hamilton County sheriff’s deputy who also checked the school’s parking lots saw a van, but did not spot anyone inside.
Issac said that investigators believe the van the deputy saw was Plush’s vehicle.
Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office officials dispute that belief.
"That's simply not the case," Chief Deputy Mark Schoonover said in a radio appearance Friday morning, WCPO in Cincinnati reported. "He did look into some vehicles. He looked into a van, but he never looked into the victim's vehicle. He never located that."
The chief said that a formal interview with Smith had not yet been conducted. He hoped that interview would help shed light on what went wrong.
"The one thing that we do know is that on that second 911 call, something has gone terribly wrong," Issac said during a news conference, which was streamed live on Facebook by WCPO. "This young man was crying out for help, and we weren't able to get that information to the officers on the scene, and we need to find out why.
“I’m not certain at this point if we’re talking about an equipment malfunction or some type of other user error, possibly, but we’re going to do an investigation to get those answers.”
WCPO reported that officials are also looking into whether a move the 911 center was undergoing on the day of Plush's death affected the ability to handle calls.
Issac said that Smith did press a tone that indicated she was having trouble on the line. The tone could be heard in the audio of the 911 calls and dispatch traffic, according to reporters who have obtained the recordings. Local media have not made the audio public due to the graphic nature of Plush’s calls.
WLWT reported that the dispatch report, a copy of which the news station obtained, shows numbers designating latitude and longitude, which police officials said are generated by a caller's phone. Putting the numbers into a Google map dropped a pin almost exactly where Plush's body was later found inside his van.
Police officials said investigators are probing why the numbers were not mapped by 911 dispatchers, including Smith.
Smith was honored last year for helping a 9-year-old girl trapped in a car with her parents, who had overdosed on heroin, WLWT reported. She found the girl by pinging the cellphone the child used to call for help.
It was unclear why that method was not used to find Plush.
A reporter at the news conference asked the chief about the lag time between when Plush initially called 911 and when it was responded to by a dispatcher – more than four minutes later.
"Is that a correct reading of the report, that it took that long before it got in the queue, before it was answered?" the reporter asked off-camera. "Isn't that a long time if that is correct?"
“That is something that we want to find an answer to,” Issac said. “I don’t know right now, but that is something that is going to be examined.”
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil has ordered an investigation into his department’s handling of the calls. County prosecutor Joe Deters has also launched a comprehensive investigation into what led to Plush’s death.
Plush, who was on the school tennis team, had a match after school the day he died. Investigators believe he was reaching for his tennis gear over the third-row bench seat in the van when the seat tipped backward and trapped him, upside down, in the hatch area with the seat digging into his chest.
He used his iPhone’s voice command to call for help, indicating that he was unable to dial and speak directly into the phone. He could be heard calling for Siri multiple times during his second 911 call.
The Washington Post, which obtained the audio of his calls, reported that his cries to Siri were the last thing recorded in his second call for help.
"Hey, Siri. Hey, Siri," Plush repeated over and over, the Post noted.
Investigators believe his position away from his cellphone it impossible for Plush to hear the people answering his frantic calls. Smith also indicated in conversation captured on the dispatch audio that it was difficult to hear the teen, who she said sounded like he was far away from the phone.
Plush also suffered from spinal problems and other medical conditions, according to WCPO. It was not clear if those issues contributed to his inability to free himself from his entrapment.
A recall last year on seats in some Honda Odysseys, which concerned a failure of the second-row seats to properly latch, does not appear to apply to the Plush family’s minivan. The recall was for vans from 2011 to 2017.
The family's Odyssey is a 2004, according to Honda. The Post reported that a company spokesman said there have been no recalls for the model Kyle Plush died in.
Issac on Thursday provided a clearer timeline of what happened in the hours before Plush was found dead by his father, who located his body about six hours after the teen first called 911.
Plush initially called 911 at 3:14 p.m., screaming for help and telling a dispatcher that he was trapped in his van in a parking lot at the school.
"The caller said they were unable to hear the call-taker and repeatedly yelled for help," Issac said. "There was also loud noise and banging that could be heard in the background on the initial 911 call."
Plush was gasping for breath when he sought help.
"I can't hear you," Plush told the dispatcher, according to the Post. "I'm in desperate need of help. I'm gonna die here."
Because Plush could not hear the dispatcher, he could not answer the questions she was asking him. The call lasted just under three minutes before it disconnected, Issac said.
The dispatcher tried to call Plush back, but the call went to his voicemail, Issac said.
“Hello, this is Kyle. I’m not available right now. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” the outgoing message said.
Officers were dispatched at 3:21 p.m. to check the school’s multiple parking lots for someone in distress. Two officers arrived at the school five minutes later.
They searched in vain for about 11 minutes before closing out the call and returning to service.
Plush called 911 for the second time at 3:35 p.m., Issac said. Smith was the dispatcher who took the second call, during which Plush reiterated that he was trapped in his vehicle and could not hear the dispatcher.
By this time, the teen had been suffocating for at least 21 minutes.
Plush sounded weaker the second time he called for help, the Post reported. Creaking could be heard in the background as he struggled to breathe.
"I probably don't have much time left, so tell my mom that I love her if I die," the teen said, according to the audio. "This is not a joke, This is not a joke. I'm trapped inside my gold Holda Odyssey van in the sophomore parking lot of Seven Hills (unintelligible).
“Send officers immediately. I’m almost dead.”
Issac said that the city police officers searching for him were still at the scene as Plush tried in vain to summon help.
At 3:44 p.m., seven minutes after the Cincinnati officers left the parking lot, a Hamilton County deputy working a traffic detail called the dispatch office and said the officers had told him about the search. The deputy said he checked a van in the parking lot, but did not see anyone in it.
"He then requested any additional information that was available so that he could do a secondary check of the area," Issac said.
Dispatch audio shows that Smith did speak to the deputy at the scene. A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said Friday, however, that the deputy received very little information from the dispatchers about what type of van to look for.
"No color or anything. It was a van," David Daugherty said, according to WCPO. "A van could be a box van, a minivan, it's pretty vague. We're very sorry this happened. It's very sad, but I believe that the Cincinnati PD officers on the scene and our deputy did everything they could with the information they had."
Issac said that Plush’s parents, Jill and Ronald Plush, received a phone call around 8 p.m. from a classmate of their son, who said that he’d seen Kyle walking toward the family’s van after school, but that Kyle had not shown up for his tennis match that afternoon.
Jill Plush called 911.
"My son never came home from school," she said, according to Fox19. "We thought he was at a tennis match, and he never came home from school."
The Plushes also used the phone-finding app for their son’s iPhone to trace him. The app indicated that he was in the Seven Hills School student parking lot.
That is where Ron Plush found his son inside the unlocked van, unresponsive and not breathing.
The Post reported that a passerby called 911 just before 9 p.m. saying that a man was running around the parking lot, screaming, "Call 911!" A night shift worker at the school also called for help, saying that he was with the boy's father and that the teen was "turned over in his seat and stuck."
“He’s been there for a while,” the caller said.
Officers were dispatched to the scene at 8:59 p.m., Issac said.
"Upon (officers') arrival, they attempted life-saving measures, but were unable to revive Mr. Plush," Issac said.
Issac offered his deepest sympathy to the Plush family.
“This is an extremely tragic incident, and we want to convey that our thoughts and prayers go out to their family,” the chief said.
Plush’s friends, classmates and teachers are reeling from the death of the boy that his elementary school principal described as “creative, vibrant and kind.” Patty Normille, head of Mercy Montessori, hosted a community prayer gathering for the teen Thursday night.
WCPO reported that Normille described the boy as a "small guy with a big personality." Despite his spinal problems, which limited his mobility, Plush loved sports and was on the school's swim team.
At his first swim meet, the other children were hesitant to enter the cold water, but Plush dove in, she said.
He took that spirit with him to Seven Hills, where his sport was tennis. The mother of a friend of his wrote on Facebook that the match he failed to show up for was to be his first.
Jackie Taggart-Boyd said her son, Spencer, described his friend as the “most positive person he ever met.”
"I can tell you that Spencer spoke of Kyle often," Taggart-Boyd wrote. "I only met him a couple of times, but every time Spencer told me a Kyle story, he ended it with, 'I LOVE Kyle!'"
A Seven Hills School spokesperson said in a statement that Plush started attending the school in the sixth grade.
“He was a young man of keen intelligence, good humor and great courage, and this whole community feels this loss very deeply,” the statement read.
Counselors were on hand at the school to help students, faculty and staff deal with their loss.
Plush leaves behind his parents, younger sister and a host of other relatives. Mourners offered love and sympathy to his family in the guest book with his online obituary.
“I knew Kyle as a small boy and remember his constant smile and his absolute zest for life,” Dori Dreisbach wrote. “He wore a back brace when I knew him, but that did not stop him from playing and exploring with all of the other children. May God bring you peace and may your precious memories of Kyle bring you some measure of comfort.”
Another woman, Olivia Canada, wrote that the teen always had a special place in her heart.
“I always loved our chats at NatureCamp at Stanbery Park,” Canada wrote. “No camper could ever love nature and the outdoors as Kyle did.”
Condolences also poured in from strangers. Maureen Tyrrell wrote that she had never left a condolence message to someone she didn’t know before, but that the teen’s story touched her heart.
“I am a stranger, but please know that my heart is full of sadness to hear about the loss of your beautiful son,” Tyrrell wrote. “It sounds like he was a bright light in this world and touched many with his kindness, a rarity among 16year-olds. I am sure you will honor his memory by carrying his goodness, compassion and love for life throughout the rest of your lives.”
Plush's visitation will be held Sunday afternoon at T.P. White & Sons Funeral Home in Cincinnati, with his funeral scheduled for Monday morning at St. Rose Church, the obituary said.
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