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Shipper in fatal fire hanged victim for speaking Spanish, lawsuit says

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A group of former Pennsylvania 911 dispatchers alleges in a federal lawsuit filed this month that an Allentown man and his cousin died in a fire in 2020 after an emergency operator hanged the man for speaking Spanish — a claim that officials from dispute the province.

The operator who answered the man’s call, Heriberto Santiago Jr., on July 27, 2020, made no effort to use a translation service as flames engulfed his three-story home in eastern Pennsylvania, the lawsuit said.

The former dispatchers say in the lawsuit that discriminatory practices were routine at the Lehigh County Emergency Call Center and that they were fired or forced to resign.

“Caucasian 911 dispatchers openly stated that they ‘don’t like taking calls from Spaniards’ and refused to use a ‘language line’ translation service to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking residents,” the lawsuit said.

The county is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Allentown on Oct. 20. The province fervently disputes that an operator hanged Mr Santiago before his death.

“That claim is absolutely false,” county attorney Thomas M. Caffrey said in a telephone interview Monday.

Caffrey said the dispatchers had received two 911 calls about the fire: the first call, at 11:22 am, was from someone who may have been a neighbor, and a second, at 11:24 am, was from Mr Santiago.

“The fact is he spoke to the coordinator in English,” said Mr. Caffrey about Mr. Santiago. “The coordinator indicated to Mr Santiago that the police and fire brigade had already been sent.”

The emergency room had disconnected from Mr Santiago and was unable to call him back, Mr Caffrey said, adding that police arrived at the house at 11:25 a.m., followed by firefighters at 11:27 a.m.

County officials said Monday they would make a transcript of the 911 calls public, but they did not provide a timeline for its release. They ruled out releasing recordings of the calls, which they said they first investigated after the fire and again when they learned of the lawsuit.

“We are releasing the transcript that proves the allegations are completely false!!!” Phil Armstrong, the director of Lehigh County, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote in an email Monday.

County officials declined to comment on the other allegations in the lawsuit, which seek coordinators’ return to work and more than $150,000 in damages.

The plaintiffs are Justin K. Zucal, David M. Gatens, Francis C. Gatens, John S. Kirchner, Emily M. Geiger, Julie L. Landis, and Brandi L. DeLong Palmer.

Fredrick E. Charles, attorney for the seven former coordinators, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Santiago, 44, died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, and his cousin, 14-year-old Andres Ortiz, died of thermal injuries, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, The Associated Press reported at the time of the fire. Their deaths were ruled accidental.

“Mr. Santiago persisted and frantically pleaded with the 911 dispatcher for emergency assistance,” the lawsuit said, adding that the dispatcher “indicated that she did not understand the Spanish language, told Mr. Santiago to speak English and told Mr. Santiago hung up.”

As a result of the “lack of training, the indifferent, negligent, reckless and outrageous behavior of the Coordinator in hanging Mr. Santiago and not taking all steps to provide emergency aid, Mr. Santiago and Mr. Ortiz perished in the fire,” the lawsuit said.

The dispatcher who, according to the lawsuit, answered Mr. Santiago is not named as a defendant in the case. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr Santiago’s family had a lawyer.

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