Wednesday, April 10, 2013
SUWANEE — A man who took five Gwinnett firefighters hostage and demanded that his power and utilities be turned on died Wednesday evening following a loud explosion and an exchange of gunfire with members of a SWAT team.
The incident one Gwinnett Fire official said hadn’t happened in the county in at least 25 years, if ever, took place in a quiet neighborhood across from Collins Hill High School where several residents exercised and walked their dogs. The scene quickly escalated after firefighters were called to the house at 2440 Walnut Grove Way at 3:41 p.m.
The standoff ended at about 7:30 p.m. with the explosion that was loud enough to set off at least one car alarm and subsequent gunfire.
Gwinnett Police Cpl. Ed Ritter said it was unknown if the suspect was shot by officers or took his own life. Ritter said the explosion was designed to surprise the suspect and distract him so officers could enter the house.
“It got to the point where we believed that their lives were in immediate danger,” Ritter said, “and our SWAT team made the decision to go in there and neutralize the situation.”
Ritter said one officer suffered an injury to a hand or arm, and the firefighters suffered superficial wounds, from the explosion.
“They’re going to be going home tonight,” Ritter said. “The officer, we’re going to check and make sure he’s OK and he’ll be going home as well.”
Gwinnett Medical Center spokeswoman Beth Okun said a couple of the firefighters were released by 9:40 p.m., and she anticipated the remaining firefighters and police officer would be released later Wednesday evening. The officer was in good condition, she said.
Property tax records showed that the home was foreclosed in November. Wells Fargo purchased the home and the loan was turned over to Fannie Mae.
Rutledge said upon the firefighters’ arrival that there was no indication or any reason to believe there was a violent situation or any unrest. But shortly after they arrived, the 911 call made for an apparent heart attack, developed into a hostage situation in which the firefighters were barricaded.
One fire engine and one ambulance arrived for the medical call, and one firefighter was cleared to leave by the suspect to move the firetruck.
Then hostage negotiators began communicating with the man.
“He started making demands,” said Ritter, who added the man was given food during negotiations. “These demands were to have his power turned back on. Apparently he’s going through some financial issues and the power and cable and cellphone were all turned off, and he wanted those things turned on.”
A neighbor who lives four or five houses from where the incident took place said his fiancee and two children, an 8-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son, were inside their house where police officers used the bathroom and charged cellphones.
“We’ve never had anything happen in this neighborhood,” said Steven Hayes, who moved to the area eight months ago. “It’s always calm.”
Residents like Hayes were prevented from entering the Walnut Grove at Ridgeland subdivision. Ritter said an “immediate area” around the house was evacuated, but he didn’t know how many houses that included.
Rutledge said firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical responders, and a medical call is a routine.
“It’s an incident people in public safety train for but hope never comes,” Rutledge said. “Tonight it did.”