Update: the Navy has retracted its story on Machinist Mate 2nd Class Nathaniel Atkins’ actions during the residential fire in Portsmouth, Virginia on June 24.
An aircraft carrier Ford crew member has recanted his story about helping to save two children from a fire after the Portsmouth, Virginia, Fire Department initiated an investigation Monday morning.
Machinist’s Mate 2 Nathaniel Atkins had claimed he saved two children from a burning building on June 24. His story was published on an official military website and later by Navy Times.
But his claim about heroics were untrue, Portsmouth officials say.
“Mr Atkins was brought into the office for a formal investigation and he did recant his full story,” Justin R Arnold, Battalion chief and deputy coordinator of emergency management, told Navy Times. “He stated he did not rescue the children out of the home and firefighters made entry into the structure, to which they pulled children out.”
Atkins “verbally apologized for what he did,” said Arnold, adding that Atkins was told “we are not seeking criminal charges because he did not impersonate a firefighter.”
The Ford’s Command Judge Advocate has been made aware of Atkins’ recanting and they are conducting their own investigation, Arnold said.
Navy officials say they are looking into the matter.
“We are currently investigating the matter,” said Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, a spokeswoman for Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic.
Investigation into claims
The PFD fire marshal opened up an investigation into Atkins claims Monday morning, because despite the initial claims, their records show that Atkins did not rescue anyone.
In a story published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, an official military website — then tweeted out by the Navy and later aggregated by Navy Times — Atkins claimed he rescued two young girls from a burning home before the fire department and other first responders arrived.
“Atkins said he got a ladder from someone in another house close by,” according to the DVIDS story, published July 1. “Once he got the ladder up he climbed to the window where he could see the girls and broke the window out. He had the first girl out before the fire department, EMS and police showed up. He had the second girl out as the fire department was beginning to combat the fire.”
On July 3, Navy Times wrote a story, titled “Norfolk sailor saves two children from fire,” based on the official Navy story.
A local TV station, WAVY, interviewed Atkins and another witness who said they worked to rescue the children.
According to the WAVY report:
“Before firefighters arrived, neighbor Darius Conley and a passerby used a ladder retrieved from a nearby home to pull three girls to safety. They were unable to reach an elderly woman from another unit.
“We went to the side of the house one of the guys [a neighbor] was yelling ‘My grandma is inside — my grandma is inside.’ She was at the window trying to come up but I guess she was so scared she just went back in. We looked up and there were kids in the window on the second floor,” said Conley.
“The fire people pulled up there was a guy running down the street with a ladder and they just worked together,” said Conley.
The guy running down the street with the ladder was Machinist Mate Nathaniel Atkins, who told the station that “‘his intensive training in the Navy, where his secondary job is as a firefighter, helped him make quick decisions in executing the rescue.‘”
“‘I have the training, and I needed to stop and help,‘” Atkins told WAVY. “‘I wish that I had been there sooner. I could have saved the older woman,‘” said Atkins.
However, Portsmouth officials say that neither Atkins nor any other non-first responder rescued anyone and that the children were removed from the fire, now determined to be an arson homicide, by the fire department.
PFD says they rescued the children
A Portsmouth Fire Department incident report obtained by Navy Times states that the children were rescued by PFD Lt. William Hatfield.
According to the report:
“While attempting to advise incoming units of the situation,” Hatfield “placed a 24′ extension ladder to the base of the window sill with intentions of performing” a search and rescues procedure known as VEIS.
“The first child was able to be retrieved by the ladder through the window. The second child retreated back into the room away from the window. With all the necessary PPE,” Hatfield “made entry into the room and located the other child. The child was brought to the window and transported through the window to a waiting firefighter on the ladder. Children were taken to medic units on scene for care and transport.”
After also exiting the room by ladder, Fire Capt. Joseph Teartt then took over the scene. Other units attempted to rescue a victim on the first floor, but she was deceased.
There was no mention of Atkins or any other assistance by a non-first responder.
“An investigation into the claims made by MM2 Atkins has been initiated by the office of the Fire Marshal of the Portsmouth Fire Department, along with a homicide investigation performed by the homicide division of Portsmouth Police Department into the fire fatality that occurred during the incident,” said Assistant Portsmouth Fire Marshal Shelton Hampton in a statement to Navy Times. As of this morning, my office has been in contact with the Command Judge Advocate of the USS Ford, LCDR Kevin Loughman, concerning our investigation into the statements made by MM2 Atkins.”
Atkins is not considered a suspect in the homicide, Arnold, the PFD battalion chief, told Navy Times.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.