Nobody could've blamed John Taras for just giving up.
A diving accident in 1988 severed his spine and left him a quadriplegic, but he still loved hunting and fishing. On a patch of land his brother owns in Rock Springs, his family had built a deer blind specially designed around his disability. Resting his rifle on a custom-built tripod and leaning his shoulder into the stock, he spent hours peering through the sight looking for deer.
"He pulled the trigger with his teeth," said Margaret Taras Drummond, his mother.
His family had planned to take him on another hunting trip one day last month, but Taras woke up very sick. And to the relatives who've dedicated much of their lives to his care during the last 25 years, it was clear that something was wrong.
"He never complained. He never said, 'Why me?'" his mother said. "When he told me he needed help, I knew he needed help, because he never asked for anything."
By the end of the day, the 53 year-old quadriplegic with a passion for hunting and fishing had died. An autopsy would later reveal he suffered from a severe bacterial infection and low blood pressure, but the cause of his death isn't in controversy. What happened in the last hours of his life is now under internal investigation by top officials at the Houston Fire Department probing complaints that emergency medical workers refused to take a dying quadriplegic to a hospital.
Now, in the bedroom his family decorated with deer heads and displays of antlers sits a blue bag containing his cremated ashes. Next to his remains sit a rock and a turkey feather from the land near his deer blind. His mother thought about pulling out of storage a stuffed turkey her son had shot, but she just didn't have the heart to do it.
"What should've happened?" his mother asked. "Why didn't the city pick my son up? Why?"
Ever since the accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 28, his family learned to pay attention anytime Taras complained about a severe headache. That symptom, they say, often signaled more serious health problems.
On the morning of October 17, he woke up complaining about headaches and nausea. At first, his family said, he thought his condition might improve. But he started feeling much worse, so his mother called for an ambulance.
But she says the Houston Fire Department crew that came to her house apparently decided her son's condition didn't constitute an emergency. One of the firefighters told her she should call a private ambulance.
"He didn't open his bag," Taras Drummond said. "He didn't take John's temperature. He didn't take a blood pressure. Nothing was done."
A private ambulance arrived shortly after the HFD ambulance departed. One of the private ambulance workers recalled that Taras wasn't responding to questions and that his eyes were rolling to the back of his head. So as they carried Taras to their ambulance, they told his mother to call HFD for another ambulance equipped to handle life-threatening emergencies.
By the time the second HFD ambulance arrived, the private ambulance crew had already hooked Taras up to an oxygen tank and revived him to the point that he was alert and talking. So rather than transferring him to the HFD ambulance, the family told the private ambulance to take him to a hospital.
"I know I lost my temper," Taras Drummond remembers. "I said, 'All I got to say for you and the City of Houston, I just hope it's none of your sons in the back of that ambulance going to the hospital."
Taras was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in downtown Houston, where he survived only a few hours.
"When I got to the hospital, the doctor looked at me and told me, 'Do you know how critical your son is? He's very, very, very critical.'" Taras Drummond said. "And I lost John Friday the 18th at about 3:00 in the afternoon."
Houston Fire Department officials confirm they've launched an investigation into the incident. One of the department's top officials, an assistant chief, has telephoned the family to discuss what happened.
"We are taking the matter very seriously," said Ruy Lozano, an HFD spokesman.