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8 dead at nursing home after Irma knocks out air conditioning

Eight people have died after Hurricane Irma knocked out air conditioning at a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, police said.

While the cause of death was not immediately clear, the facility, Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, evacuated all its residents to hospitals because of the cooling problem.

Most of the deceased were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues, officials said. Their ages ranged from 71 to 99, the Hollywood Police Department said at a news conference this evening.

Hollywood Fire Rescue crews responded to a call at about 3 a.m. today for a patient who was reported to be in cardiac arrest, and the patient was transported to a hospital, police said.

At 4 a.m., firefighters were sent back to the facility to transport a patient reported to be experiencing breathing problems, police said. After the second call, fire officials called the state Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.

A third call later came in as well, police said. After fire rescue crews arrived, three patients were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home, and several other patients were found to be in "varying degrees of medical distress," authorities said.

Of the eight deaths, seven occurred today, and one Tuesday night.

All remaining patients were removed from the center by 9:15 a.m., after additional rescue units were called in and a complete evacuation of the facility was ordered, police said.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief tonight said the center had contacted the county's Emergency Operations Center Tuesday morning to alert the health and medical team that it had lost power. The incident was then reported as a "mission-critical request" to Florida Power & Light for power restoration.

Later that day, the center said it had done a survey of the property and that a tree had landed on a transformer, Sharief said. When asked by emergency workers whether they had any medical needs or emergencies, center officials "did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed," Sharief said.

Officials said 18 additional patients from an adjoining facility were also relocated because of the investigation, although those patients were "not medically compromised."

Dr. Randy Katz, director of emergency services at Memorial Regional Hospital, which is next to the nursing home but is not affiliated with it, said there were extremely high temperatures on the nursing home's second floor.

A person handling air conditioning for the facility told ABC Fort Lauderdale affiliate WPLG-TV that a fuse was damaged during Irma, resulting in cooling issues for the past few days. The facility itself has power, the individual said.

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement that the facility was evacuated this morning "due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility's air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane."

"Unfortunately, early this morning several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility," followed by other fatalities at "the hospital they were transferred to," Carballo said.

"Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected," he added.

In a later statement today, Carballo expressed his condolences to the family members of the deceased and provided further details on what transpired at the nursing home.

"The center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma," Carballo said. "We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators. While our center did not lose power during the storm, it did lose one transformer that powers the air conditioning unit. The center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was also made to local emergency officials and first responders."

The center had a generator on standby "in compliance with state regulations," as well as seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator, Carballo added. After the air conditioning went down, staff set up "mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility," Carballo said. Staff also "continually checked on residents' well-being" to ensure they were "hydrated and as comfortable as possible," Carballo said.

"We are devastated by these losses," Carballo said. "We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

The Florida governor's office said Department of Health officials were "in contact with Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services management and the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills over the past three days" and that "hospital administrators were advised to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that the health or safety of patients was at risk."

The governor's office said Tuesday "the facility reported to the AHCA [Agency for Health Care Administration] that they had power and access to fans and spot coolers."

Police said a criminal investigation is underway and they are not ruling anything out.

"This was a terrible incident," Katz, the director of emergency services at nearby Memorial Regional Hospital, said. "The scene was chaotic when I arrived. The fact that it's down the street - you know, we don't have control over what goes on in that facility."

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said temperatures have climbed to over 90 degrees in the city and that half of Hollywood is without power.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement that he was "heartbroken" to learn of the deaths and he is "going to aggressively demand answers."

"This situation is unfathomable," Scott said. "Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe, especially patients that are in poor health."

Scott said he has directed the state Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families to work with law enforcement on an investigation. "If they find that anyone wasn't acting in the best interests of their patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law," the governor said.

Scott said he is also asking available first responders to check with their area health facilities to make sure nursing homes are keeping their residents safe.

The medical examiner's office said the victims were: Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.

Amber Mickles, whose great-grandmother is a patient at the nursing home, told reporters she believes her great-grandmother is OK, but she's "trying to see exactly what's going on because we don't really know."

Mickles said she was not notified of any air conditioning issues.

"I can't even take the heat right now from the air conditioning down," she said. "I'm 29, I can't take it."

"I feel very sorry for the ones that lost somebody," she added. "I think you should've had the option to come pick up your family member."

The nursing home has faced problems in the past. In the past three years, the center has had multiple citations for health deficiencies, according to the Medicare website.

In addition, a report from the Agency for Health Care Administration found that the center is in the bottom 20 percent for inspection, quality of care and dignity.

ABC News' Dan Childs, Lauren Pearle, Ben Stein and Jason Volack contributed to this report.

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