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Conflicting details surround baby's death at San Francisco Zoo

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An 11-day-old boy apparently suffocated in his mother’s sling at the San Francisco Zoo and died two weeks ago, but details surrounding the slower-than-usual emergency response are elusive and contradictory.

Zoo employees and officials from the Fire Department disagree about how quickly emergency personnel responded to 911 calls and whether department medics or a private ambulance crew arrived first.

The newborn was apparently being carried by his mother at the zoo’s Leaping Lemur Cafe on March 12 when, witnesses said, he turned blue and became nonresponsive. Zoo employees called security, which then called 911 at 11:42 a.m. Three other people also called 911.

Self-identified medical professionals assisted the parents and security with CPR until an ambulance and medics from the Fire Department arrived, zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said. The newborn was taken to UCSF Medical Center, where the baby was pronounced dead at 12:56 p.m.

Fire Department Lt. Mindy Talmadge said it took six minutes from receiving the call for department medics to reach the baby, despite inaccurate directions from a visitor to use the front gate, which required them to run to the cafe in the center of the zoo.

However, based on the zoo’s official record of the tragedy, it took Fire Department responders 13 minutes to get to the gate before the medics had to proceed on foot.

LaMarca said the zoo is confident its timeline is correct.

That timeline said the ambulance, whose staff was told by zoo employees to go through the zoo’s emergency entrance around back, took eight minutes to pull up to the cafe. It then took an additional 11 minutes to get the baby on a gurney, according to the timeline.

The adequacy of the zoo’s emergency response system was questioned three years ago when access and other issues prevented medics from finding the victims of a Christmas Day tiger attack in a timely manner. A 17-year-old was fatally mauled in that incident.

San Franciscans in distress should typically expect a medic to respond to emergency calls in less than 5 minutes, Talmadge said. She said it took department medics longer to respond on this occasion because they were told to go to the front gate.

Talmadge also said Fire Department medics were on the scene ahead of a private ambulance crew, which contradicts the zoo’s timeline.

It is not known whether a quicker response would have helped save the baby.

The situation itself was a heart-wrenching one even for the emergency responders.

“It was horrible,” said Chief Paramedic Josh Nultemeier, whose King American Ambulance Co. provided the private ambulance.

As of Thursday, the Medical Examiner’s Office had not determined the exact cause, but fire and zoo officials both say it was likely suffocation.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

This article has been modified from its original version.