April 26, 2005 The death of John Alexander, whose car veered off Veterans Drive and plunged into the St. Thomas Harbor on April 11, has raised concerns about whether the territory's emergency response agencies are adequately prepared to handle water accidents.
Alexander and his co-worker, Raymond Gumbs, were driving west along Veterans Drive when the car swerved off the highway and into the harbor. Gumbs was able to free himself from the car and swim towards shore where he was pulled out of the water. Alexander did not survive. Gumbs had told police that Alexander complained of chest pains just before the car entered the water.
The V.I. Police Department did not release any information about Alexander after the incident except to say that he had died and an autopsy would be conducted.
On Tuesday, Francisco Landron, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Alexander, told the Source the 48-year-old man drowned and did not die from a heart attack as previously thought.
Landron said the autopsy revealed that Alexander had chest pains due to heart disease that "precipitated his losing control and falling into the water," but his death was not due to the heart condition.
"Had he not fallen in the water, he would not have died," Landron said. "He died of drowning."
On Monday, Senate President Lorraine L. Berry expressed concern about the emergency response agencies' ability to address such incidents.
She raised the issue in a letter to Police Commissioner Elton Lewis, Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett, V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Darlan Brin, V.I. Fire Service Director Merwin Potter and Emergency Medical Services Director Selwyn Mahon.
Berry said rescue agencies took too long to remove Alexander from the water.
"My constituents have advised me that on the day of Mr. Alexanders accident, countless police, fire and other emergency personnel stood on the apron of the waterfront while Mr. Alexander remained submerged for approximately 45 minutes before a small number of police officers, who are certified divers, arrived on the scene along with personnel from a local dive shop," Berry wrote.
Berry said although Alexander's death was unfortunate, her concern was centered on the emergency response systems and their preparedness for handling similar situations in the future.
She wrote, "In recent years, the waterfront has become a place of accidental drowning, a place for people to push others into, a place for some to commit suicide by drowning, and a place where vehicles with passengers can enter freely, either purposefully or by accident." The senator inquired what was being done about the waterfront situation.
Acting Police Commissioner James McCall said Wednesday he had not received Berry's letter. Lewis, who is off-island, had not seen the letter either.
McCall said the V.I. Police Department is equipped with rescue boats and works with the U.S. Coast Guard and other rescue agencies when water accidents occur. He said the department also has a dive team made up of certified divers. McCall, who is also a certified diver, could not say how many other police officers were certified.
"The Police Department could always use more equipment and trained officers," McCall said, but incidents like Alexander's death could not be prevented. He said similar incidents happen all over the world.
McCall said Alexander's chances of survival would have been slim even if the rescue teams had arrived earlier, because the heart problem reduced the amount of time he could have remained under water.
Alexander's family could not be reached Wednesday.
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