‘Indy Star’ Denies Ex-Columnist’s Claim That 911 Calls Were Blocked

By: Joe Strupp

The Indianapolis Star is strongly denying a claim by a former columnist that a Star photographer who collapsed in the newsroom, and later died, had emergency help delayed because newspaper workers could not dial 911 from the newsroom.

Ruth Holladay, who retired three weeks ago from the paper after a 37-year career, wrote the claim July 22 on her Web blog, www.ruthholladay.com. The Web posting contends that when photographer Mpozi Tolbert, 34, collapsed at his desk on July 3, fellow workers were not able to quickly reach emergency dispatchers because their phones could not call out.

“That night, nobody could dial 911 from the newsroom. [Star owner] Gannett wants all such calls to go through to security, at extension 4900 and located on the first floor, so that security can exert control,” the blog item stated, in part. “The woman working security that night, who got the calls from the second floor, does not speak English with much skill. So she had a hard time getting a grasp on the situation and began asking a lot of questions rather than getting on the horn right away to 911. Meanwhile, horrified, frantic copy editors and others whipped out their cell phones to dial 911.”

Tolbert died about an hour after leaving the paper, his July 4 obituary in the Star stated. It also described him as “an award-winning photographer” and someone “equally at ease at news and sporting events as he was in classrooms of children.” It made no mention of a cause of death.

While the Holladay blog item was posted July 22, it received increased attention today when the Poynter.org Romenesko site linked to it. The link, and subsequent attention, prompted Star Senior Vice President & General Manager Ali Zoibi to issue a firm denial.

“All of us at The Star are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Mpozi,” Zoibi wrote in a statement to E&P. “We feel it is imperative to correct false statements made on the Internet. Any Star employee can call 911 from Star phones. In fact, employees and our security staff used Star phones to make calls that night.”

But leaders of the Indianapolis News Guild told E&P they are not satisfied with the newspaper’s response and are seeking further information about what occurred. “We just don’t know all the facts yet,” Tom Spalding, a guild local vice president, said Tuesday. He pointed to a union e-mail newsletter sent last week to members that mentioned the incident and the guild concern.

“Your Guild is asking serious questions about safety precautions at the Star … in wake of guild member and photographer Mpozi Mshale Tolbert?s untimely death in the newsroom July 3,” the newsletter stated, in part. “As you might know, an autopsy from the Marion County Coroner gave no indication to the cause of his collapse while on duty nor why he died. But it is a workplace fatality … and until this tragic puzzle is solved, we will continue to seek answers about our internal procedures — such as how to make 911 calls from the newsroom. Also, the Guild officers have had talks with Star leaders about some optional training — CPR — and equipment, like the automatic debibrillators, just in case.”

Zoibi declined to comment further. Calls to Editor Dennis Ryerson and Publisher Barbara Henry were not returned. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell declined to comment, noting that the newspaper’s statement was clear in indicating that the Holladay claims were incorrect.

Holladay also could not be reached for comment.

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