The Plush Family Is Answering the Call

In 2018, following a series of mistakes by Cincinnati’s 911 system and police, 16-year-old Kyle Plush died. His parents, Jill and Ron Plush, now consult with emergency call centers to make sure that tragedy never happens again.
Jill and Ron Plush, photographed at their home on November 23, 2022, are inspired by their son’s too-short life to help other parents avoid a similar tragedy.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Jill Plush lingered in her driveway on the chilly morning of April 10, 2018, for one last glimpse of her son Kyle as he headed off to school. He looks so little, she told herself.

Hers was the most commonplace of parental worries: a teenager behind the wheel of a car. It’s a fear so primal that Subaru built a series of ads around it, with furrow-browed parents envisioning a small child in the driver’s seat. As she looked at Kyle, Jill could still see the little boy he’d once been, with his tousled hair and warm, irrepressible smile.

Jill knew she had less cause for concern than many moms. At 16, Kyle was responsible, mature, and more likely to stay after school for Latin Club than to abuse drugs or alcohol. Still, she was a worrier, a habit ingrained since Kyle nearly died from a spinal cord injury as an infant.

That morning she scraped the frost from the windshield of the family’s Honda Odyssey van. “I wanted him to be safe,” she recalls now. She says she always tried to anticipate every danger—except the one that her son would face with characteristic resourcefulness later that afternoon.

When Kyle tried to retrieve his tennis gear from the back of his car after school, the bench seat flipped and trapped him against the van’s rear door. Unable to move and struggling to breathe, he used voice activation technology to place two successful 911 calls. It was a heroic effort that should have saved his life. It didn’t.

“As a 911 caller calling for help, Kyle did everything right,” says Jill, her eyes filling with tears. “So why did help not reach him in time?”

Photograph courtesy the Plush family

It’s a question that rocked the city’s conscience and shocked the world. How could two such desperate calls for help—with specific information about his location at Seven Hills School and his vehicle model—have failed to save Kyle’s life?

The first emergency call taker never conveyed the urgency of the call—the banging sounds and the caller’s plea, “I’m going to die soon!” Two police officers dispatched to the scene spent 11 minutes cruising school parking lots without stepping out of their vehicle or checking the address that had been provided for them, 12 parking spots away from the family van.

The second call-taker, receiving no response from the victim, activated the TTY function for deaf callers. She never played back the message in which Kyle provided more specific information about his vehicle (a gold Honda Odyssey) and never told the officers, who were still on the scene, that a second call for help had been placed. “I probably don’t have much time left,” Kyle said in that call, “so tell my mom that I love her if I die.”

His plea touched hearts around the world. But in the moments that might have mattered, nobody listened.

Kyle Plush’s tragic death grabbed national and international headlines. But the most profound part of the story may well have happened after the news trucks left. It’s the story of parents who have channeled their grief into a fierce drive to prevent future tragedies. “We wanted to find out what happened so it doesn’t happen to another family,” says Ron Plush.

In 2021, Ron and Jill reached a settlement in their wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati that established a team of 911 experts to work with the city’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) over a five-year period to reform its 911 system. “I wish this had never happened, but I do think that Cincinnati is a safer place than in 2018,” says ECC Director Bill Vedra, part of a new management team brought in after the tragedy. “We are on this path of continuous improvement, looking at how we can be the best 911 center we can be, and I absolutely believe that Kyle was a catalyst for that.”

Andrew Knapp, photographed at the Hamilton County Communications Center on November 30, 2022, says he and other professionals are “inspired to do better” every day by the Plushes’ story.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Local 911 officials say the tragedy’s impact has extended far beyond Cincinnati. “This was a nationwide incident that affected everyone,” says Andrew Knapp, director of communications for the Hamilton County Communications Center, a multi-jurisdictional agency that does not include Cincinnati. “Everyone has heard of an Amber Alert. In much the same way, the Plush family has gone to national 911 conferences and shared their story. You can’t listen to their presentation without being inspired to do better the next day you go to work.”

Jill recalls that every night at bedtime she’d stop by Kyle’s room, and he would say, “Good night, I love you, see you in the morning, sweet dreams.” It was a tradition carried over from childhood, symbolizing the closeness he shared with his parents and younger sister, Alli.

That bond only deepened as a result of early adversity and a lifetime of physical challenges. Kyle nearly died when he was four months old after suffering a life-changing spinal cord injury. Complications from a routine spinal tap caused a hematoma, or a mass of blood clots, to form as blood slowly leaked into his epidural space. His parents were warned he might not make it through the emergency surgery to remove the blood clot that was compressing his spinal cord and causing him to go into paralysis.

After Kyle survived the surgery, his medical team wasn’t sure how much function he would regain. He wore a full body cast for six months, and he did physical and occupational therapy throughout the rest of his childhood, often wearing a brace to prevent curvature of his spine. He never regained full use of his right hand. “He went through a lot,” Jill says. “It is truly amazing that he was so positive and happy all the time, with a huge smile on his face.”

Photograph courtesy the Plush family

Every six months, the family traveled to a clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota, so that his back brace could be adjusted. His parents turned these appointments into an adventure, initially visiting LEGOLAND before graduating to the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Despite their three-year age gap, Kyle and Alli were best friends who spent countless hours building ships and planes from LEGO. Kyle played tennis and basketball and loved skiing at Perfect North Slopes. A nature lover who was active in the Boy Scouts, he was working toward his Eagle Scout rank. “He was doing everything a normal kid should be doing,” Ron says. “You look at him and what he did in 16 years, and I can only dream of doing so much no matter how long I live.”

Kyle’s medical issues made him more focused, Jill says. “Having to learn to do things with disadvantages helped him to be more innovative and creative.”

As a sixth-grader at Mercy Montessori School, Kyle announced one night at dinner, “Seven Hills School is having an open house, and I want to go.” The minute he stepped on campus, he knew it was the right place for him. “He always loved to learn, and at Seven Hills he found the challenge he needed,” says Ron.

Photograph courtesy the Plush family

Krish Gupta forged an enduring friendship with Kyle in the seventh grade, when both were newcomers to Seven Hills. Kyle was more gregarious, Gupta more reserved, but they shared a passion for learning and a fascination with the way things worked. Working together on a presentation for a Latin Club convention, they experimented with techniques to cast coins from gallium metal. “We always bounced ideas off each other,” Gupta says. “We were both nerds.”

Kyle also became a bit of a class clown. “I don’t think there was anybody in the school who didn’t like Kyle,” says Gupta. “He could be friends with anybody.”

So many of Kyle’s friends shared lunch together that they formed a two-foot-deep circle with chairs around their table. “There was always room for one more at their table,” Jill says.

After finishing a math exam on April 10, 2018, Gupta headed to his waiting school bus while Kyle walked to the family van to retrieve his tennis equipment for a match that afternoon. For the next six hours, Kyle’s loved ones assumed that’s where he was.

Jill had no reason to worry when Kyle didn’t come home after school that day. She knew he had a tennis match, and her Life360 app confirmed that he and his phone were at the school. As the afternoon wore on, she started calling and texting Kyle. No answer. She finally phoned a friend, a former tennis coach, to ask if students normally played this late. “They usually watch the other students play before they come home,” he reassured her. When it got dark, Jill again called her friend, who contacted the tennis coach and called back with terrifying news: Kyle never made it to the match that day.

“This is when our nightmare began,” Jill says. They knew Kyle’s phone was at the school, but he wasn’t answering. After calling 911, Ron rushed up to the school while Jill remained at home to talk to the police. “I couldn’t go to the school,” she says. “I couldn’t move. I was so scared.”

Ron found the van in the parking lot with the door unlocked. He spotted Kyle’s tennis racquet and backpack, but he didn’t see his son until at last checking in the back. He freed Kyle from the collapsed seat and frantically attempted CPR. “But I knew,” says Ron, bowing his head.

Help arrived too late. With the bench seat applying 80 pounds of pressure to his chest, Kyle died from asphyxiation.

It wasn’t until the next day that the Plushes learned of the 911 calls, adding a fresh dimension to their grief—the growing awareness that his death could have been prevented. The first call came in at 3:14 p.m. The emergency call taker could hear Kyle banging and crying out: “Help. I am stuck in the van. Help. Help. Help. I am stuck in the van outside Seven Hills parking lot. Help. I need help. Help. Help. Help. Can you hear me? I’m at the Seven Hills parking lot. I am trapped in my van…I am in desperate need of help…I am going to die soon.”

The worker waited seven minutes before entering the call in the computer-aided dispatch system (CAD), labeling it “unknown trouble” instead of “rescue,” which would have engaged the fire department. She didn’t communicate that the caller was pounding and screaming that he was going to die soon. She knew Kyle’s first name after calling him back when his initial call became disconnected, but she failed to share that information.

She did, however, classify the call as high priority, and she gave Cincinnati police officers an address that should have brought them within a short distance of Kyle’s van. Two officers arrived at 3:26 p.m. and entered the south end of the school parking lot; Kyle’s van was parked in the north end. The officers remained on the scene for 11 minutes without stepping outside their cruiser or rolling down their windows to hear someone calling for help. The officers never displayed the address, 5471 Red Bank Rd., in the mapping function on their mobile data computer or punched it into their cell phones. They talked with a school resource officer who was directing traffic, dismissing the call as a likely prank, and on the body camera recording one officer can be heard saying that he didn’t imagine they would find anything.

At 3:34 p.m., while the officers were still on the scene, Kyle succeeded in placing a second 911 call. This emergency call-taker activated the TTY function for deaf callers. When the caller still failed to respond, she didn’t switch back to normal mode. She never played back the call in which Kyle provides a description of his van and an update on his deteriorating condition as he gasps and struggles for breath: “This is not a joke. This is not a joke. I’m trapped inside my gold Honda Odyssey van in the sophomore parking lot of Seven Hills Hillsdale. Send officers immediately. I’m almost dead.”

The call-taker did not submit a second CAD report, even though she knew it was a repeat caller. The police officers left the scene without exploring the north end of the parking lot or being informed of the second call for help.

“It was a catastrophic series of events,” says Knapp of the Hamilton County Communications Center. “If you change one thing in this chain, the outcome would have been different.”

The Plush family knew that Kyle was well-loved, but they were overwhelmed by the community outpouring after his death. Mourners waited in the cold rain for hours at his visitation, the line snaking into a Kroger parking next to the funeral home.

The condolence cards struck similar themes, talking about Kyle’s compassion, enthusiasm, and broad, impish grin. One mother wrote about his exceptional kindness to her special needs daughter. In another typical comment, a family friend wrote, “He approached life with such zest and brought a lot of laughter to our family.”

Jill intended to ask her sister to read Kyle’s eulogy, but on the morning of his funeral she felt compelled to perform this one last service for her son. Although normally terrified by public speaking, she experienced a tremendous sense of peace when she stepped up to the lectern before 1,000 mourners at St. Rose Church in the East End.

“Kyle, I am going to miss you each and every day until I see you again in heaven,” she said. “I know you are in a better place now, and I believe God has some very big plans for you. I know you are up for this challenge because you are the strongest person I’ve ever known. And now through your courageous bravery in the last moments of your life, you have touched the lives of many more people who now love you too. Good night, Kyle, love you, see you in heaven, sweet dreams!”

A month after the funeral, Jill visited her lifelong friend Jana Strader in Knoxville, Tennessee. During that getaway they decided to attend the national conference of the National Emergency Number Association taking place that same week in Nashville. “I was awestruck by her ability to attend a national conference with 4,000 people while genuinely trying to learn,” recalls Knapp, who met Jill at the conference.

Attending the conference caused Jill to realize that “there are so many kind and compassionate people in the 911 industry.” When the friends returned to Knoxville, she announced, “We’re going to start a foundation.” That was the birth of the Kyle Plush Answer the Call (KPATC) Foundation, whose mission statement declares, “Kyle would have focused on solutions to improve the 911 system. He would not have made excuses or found barriers as to why things couldn’t be done.”

The foundation is dedicated to supporting 911 workers in any way possible, from delivering gourmet cookies to presenting awards, called Challenge Coins, to dispatchers who exhibit dedication and creative thinking. They also make frequent presentations to dispatch centers across the country. “There isn’t a dry eye in the audience,” says Knapp, who has frequently brought in the couple to present at his Hamilton County dispatch centers.

The cookie deliveries, accompanied by notes of encouragement, are a game-changer for these unseen first responders. “We couldn’t believe the response,” says Strader. “There were hugs and tears.”

“Jill and Ron quickly realized that no one tells [dispatchers] Thank you,” Knapp says. “They saw that deficiency and stepped up to make a real difference in the industry.”

After Kyle’s death, Jill and Ron faithfully attended Cincinnati public law and safety meetings, trusting that the city would keep its promise to initiate timely reforms. They were bitterly disappointed in November 2018 when the Cincinnati Police Department’s internal investigation concluded the officers and emergency call-takers had followed protocol. “The message seemed to be, We didn’t do anything wrong, and nothing is going to change,” Ron says.

Initially reluctant to file a lawsuit, the couple felt they had no choice if they wanted to find out what happened to their son and to spur the city to fix the systemic problems that contributed to his death. Acting on the advice of a friend, they hired renowned Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, best known nationally for representing James Obergefell in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges.

It was a good fit. The couple shared their lawyer’s primary focus on reform rather than financial compensation. “They wanted change, because that was the best way to honor their son,” says Gerhardstein. “They were at City Hall trying to learn the details of how things failed and were getting lots of responses, lots of words, but not seeing lots of action.”

On August 12, 2019, Gerhardstein filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati, ultimately resulting in a $6 million settlement with the Plush family in 2021. Far more meaningful to Kyle’s parents was the establishment of a team of 911 experts from around the country to monitor and enhance the Emergency Communications Center. The expert team reports to the public every six months, monitoring such issues as training, quality assurance, up-to-date technology, and adherence to protocol. “The only part of the settlement that was important to us was the reforms to the Cincinnati ECC to help them become a world-class 911 center to ensure a tragedy like Kyle’s never happens again,” Jill says.

Vedra, ECC’s new director, says that countless improvements have been made since Kyle’s death, many of them taking place before announcement of the settlement. “The team of experts are making sure that the momentum isn’t lost and that there is transparency in the improvements that are taking place,” he says.

Vedra says the city has invested heavily in hiring more call takers and dispatchers as well as full-time quality assurance personnel. The back-up call center, where Kyle’s calls were answered, has been renovated and updated with state-of-the-art equipment. “The technology was not where it needed to be and the acoustics were poor, creating a challenging environment for 911 workers and making it difficult to understand their caller,” he says.

In city after city, at dispatch call center after call center, Ron and Jill Plush are reliving the worst day of their lives as they share Kyle’s story with 911 workers. During a recent virtual session with dispatchers in Santa Ana, California, Ron began by stating, “First we want to share that we are here to learn, not to criticize. Let’s not focus on what went wrong. Let’s focus on what should have gone right.”

Their optimistic, forward-looking approach is very much in keeping with the way their son lived his life. “Kyle was a true leader in his group of friends, and he was always full of energy and ideas,” Jill explained to the California group. “When we think of Kyle, we think of the Latin phrase carpe diem, which means seize the day. This is the way Kyle lived his life. He lived to the fullest every day with a huge smile on his face while always being his best self. We believe if even one person involved in Kyle’s call had been their best self, he would still be with us today.”

If a 911 call seems strange or a voice sounds remote, Jill cautioned the group, never assume it’s a prank. “Be persistent and determined to find out why. With new technology and creative callers, it might be the victim’s only way to ask for help.”

After their presentations, Jill says, dispatchers often tell her and Ron, I have been doing this my whole life, and now I will look at it completely differently. Recently a dispatcher in Alaska wrote about the significance of being awarded a Challenge Coin: “More and more I found myself keeping the coin next to me at my dispatch station to remind me to do the best I can on every call, even on my grumpiest days.”

That’s the kind of message that inspires the Plushes to crisscross the country sharing Kyle’s story, even though both work full-time jobs. Kyle’s friends, too, remain committed to the cause. In spite of his hectic schedule as a Purdue University engineering student, Gupta has remained active with the KPATC Foundation, working with a group of friends to craft a series of videos about using a cell phone during emergencies. The videos have received wide circulation—first among the Seven Hills student body, and then an updated version that’s being shared everywhere from driving schools to Cincinnati Reds games. “I wanted to keep the spirit of Kyle with me, his resourcefulness, excitement, and love of learning that we shared,” Gupta says. “I try to live my life taking lessons from the kind of person that he was.”

At every milestone, including his 21st birthday, Gupta says he asks himself, What would Kyle be doing now? “He would have excelled at anything,” he says.

The Plush family finds comfort in knowing that Kyle’s life and death are making a difference. “God blessed us with Kyle for 16 years,” says Jill. “As sad as we are that we don’t have him here with us, we know that God decided he had a different plan for him. Kyle is saving lives.”

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