APOPKA, Fla. — Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson defended the city’s response to the death of a young firefighter, fatally injured last summer in a work accident that has been blamed on departmental training deficiencies, insisting “we’re working on every angle, all aspects of safety.”
The mayor called a press conference Wednesday after two firefighters resigned from an Apopka Fire Department safety committee, insinuating city officials halted the panel’s plan to look into circumstances which led to firefighter Austin Duran’s death.
The briefing featured a terse and tense exchange between Nelson and Duran’s father, Michael Duran.
The elder Duran demanded to know, “yes or no,” whether the safety committee was investigating his son’s death.
Nelson repeated earlier remarks. “We’re investigating all aspects,” he said.
“So we’re not,” Duran said.
“I didn’t say that,” Nelson replied.
“But you didn’t say, ‘We are,’ ” the father fired back. “We’re asking questions, Mr. Mayor.”
The younger Duran, 25, died July 15 of multiple injuries suffered June 30 while helping move a trailer that had a heavy metal container filled with sand. The trailer tipped over, crushing him.
Duran served the Apopka Fire Department as a youth explorer while in high school. He was hired in July 2020.
The safety committee, named the “Austin Duran Safety Initiative,” lost two members this month, both veteran firefighters.
“I am at a loss. If the fire chief does not want the safety committee to critique and review the most important incident in the history of the Apopka Fire Department, then disband it,” Lt. Alex Klepper said in a Dec. 10 email announcing he was quitting the panel.
Klepper, also president of the Apopka firefighters union, said in his email that the safety committee’s purpose should be to make sure “every employee can go home to their family in the condition they came to work in,” but has lost its credibility because of restrictions.
“Ever since this committee has started looking into Austin’s accident, we have been met with push back, to the point that fire administration appears to be bending over backwards to exclude us, its own safety committee, from doing a simple post-incident critique,” he wrote.
Firefighter Pablo A. Echevarria also stepped down from the committee.
In his correspondence, Echevarria, a 27-year department veteran, complained about the committee’s direction.
“I already felt uneasy and was troubled about the unannounced meeting with the city attorney where he suggested that it may not be a good idea to have a critique by the safety committee due to the potential cost to the city with the pending litigation filed by Austin’s Family,” Echevarria said.
Fire Chief Sean Wylam stood behind the mayor Wednesday during the briefing outside Apopka City Hall but said nothing.
Duran’s family filed a notice with the city in October that they intended to sue over his death.
The mayor said the city has completed 18 of 22 recommendations suggested by Klepper and made other safety changes, including funding a training chief, establishing a formal mentoring program to help new firefighters, and adding a third firefighter to all emergency runs.
Nelson said the department also has stopped using the kind of trailer that injured Duran.