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Mom of Black Boys Left Behind by White Firefighters Demands Answers

In late May, 12-year-old Zyaire Mitchell and 9-year-old Lamar Mitchell died after briefly surviving a fire at their home in Flint, Michigan. The two Black boys were eventually discovered inside a second-floor room—in a house that was just a three-minute walk from the local fire station.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Crystal Cooper© Provided by The Daily Beast

“The last message that he sent me was, ‘You’re the best mom ever,’” their mother, Crystal Cooper, recalled in an interview, speaking about Lamar. “He was just carin’ and lovin’, and if I was having a bad day, he would make me smile. He was always smiling.”

Weeks later, the city’s fire chief determined that two white firefighters initially tasked with canvassing the room in which the children were fatally injured lied about properly searching for victims.

“Due to the nature of the incident in question, and the actions or lack of action possibly contributing to the loss of life of two victims, I have determined to terminate Sergeant Daniel Sniegocki and Michael Zlotek’s employment with the City of Flint Fire Department,” read a report dated July 22 and obtained by The Daily Beast.

But while Chief Raymond Barton made the determination to fire the firefighters, neither was ultimately dismissed. Instead, Sniegocki resigned—and his colleague, Zlotek, was allowed to return to work after completing a course in search and rescue.

The move, Barton said at an October city council meeting, “split the department.” Now, the boys’ family is publicly demanding a criminal investigation into the firefighters’ actions—as well as a probe into what some city council members in the serially troubled Michigan city have said is a cover-up by the mayor, Democrat Sheldon Neeley.

Zyaire Mitchell, left, and Lamar Mitchell, right. Courtesy of Crystal Cooper

In late May, 12-year-old Zyaire Mitchell and 9-year-old Lamar Mitchell died after briefly surviving a fire at their home in Flint, Michigan. The two Black boys were eventually discovered inside a second-floor room—in a house that was just a three-minute walk from the local fire station.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Crystal Cooper© Provided by The Daily Beast

“The last message that he sent me was, ‘You’re the best mom ever,’” their mother, Crystal Cooper, recalled in an interview, speaking about Lamar. “He was just carin’ and lovin’, and if I was having a bad day, he would make me smile. He was always smiling.”

Weeks later, the city’s fire chief determined that two white firefighters initially tasked with canvassing the room in which the children were fatally injured lied about properly searching for victims.

“Due to the nature of the incident in question, and the actions or lack of action possibly contributing to the loss of life of two victims, I have determined to terminate Sergeant Daniel Sniegocki and Michael Zlotek’s employment with the City of Flint Fire Department,” read a report dated July 22 and obtained by The Daily Beast.

But while Chief Raymond Barton made the determination to fire the firefighters, neither was ultimately dismissed. Instead, Sniegocki resigned—and his colleague, Zlotek, was allowed to return to work after completing a course in search and rescue.

The move, Barton said at an October city council meeting, “split the department.” Now, the boys’ family is publicly demanding a criminal investigation into the firefighters’ actions—as well as a probe into what some city council members in the serially troubled Michigan city have said is a cover-up by the mayor, Democrat Sheldon Neeley.

“I just would like a thorough investigation done with the firefighters,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. “Everybody that was involved. I would like answers. I want to know what happened.”

In a written statement, City of Flint spokesperson Caitie O’Neill said that the fire was a “tragedy” and that discipline given to officers was issued according to “normal procedures.”

“At no point did undue influence by Mayor Neeley or any other elected official affect the outcome of the investigation or the discipline imposed,” she wrote.

Neither Sneigocki nor Zlotek could be reached for comment for this story. Spokespeople for Flint police and the Genesee County prosecuting attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When the fire broke out that Saturday morning in May, it was rank-and-file firefighters who first called 911. They were alerted to the blaze by a passerby, who said they could see smoke coming out of the house from near the fire station itself.

As emergency personnel rushed to the scene, Sniegocki and Zlotek were the two-person team that performed the first sweep of the second floor of the two-story home, according to Barton’s report.

“Upon finishing their first sweep of the second floor the team called off a second sweep,” it said.

It wasn’t until seven minutes later—precious moments when a child is faced with smoke inhalation—that another crew of firefighters moved to vent the room and discovered a boy laying on the ground.

“There was no way that they [Sniegocki and Zlotek] entered the bedroom where the victims were found and missed them,” Lt. Fred Presswood, the firefighter whose team ultimately found the boys, later told Barton, according to the report. Presswood did not respond to requests for comment.

After an investigation, the Chief found that “Sergeant Sniegocki and Firefighter Michael Zlotek have knowingly made false reports in their Incident Write-ups,” and that they “neglected to perform the tasks of completing a sweep of the second floor.”

The fire chief did not respond to requests for comment. According to reporting by MLive, a union representative for the firefighters previously said that the men were made scapegoats in a situation where they faced high heat and low visibility.

“State fire investigators have ruled that electrical wiring in the residence caused this devastating fire,” said a release by Chief Barton in August.

But after months of feeling ignored by authorities, and even a previous lawyer, Cooper —a nurse—decided to take to the podium at Flint’s City Council earlier this month to issue a plea for justice.

“Firefighters are trained to save lives. They are trained to look for people who may have passed out from smoke inhalation or are trapped in the fire. This didn’t happen with my sons.”

Zyaire Mitchell, left, and Lamar Mitchell, right. Courtesy of Crystal Cooper© Provided by The Daily Beast

During questioning by some council members that same night, Chief Barton said that he had initially suspended the officers without pay. Then he said that the severity of consequences began to slide—and not always at his direction.

While he was in Arkansas for a family funeral, Barton said, he “received a call from director [of] HR Eddie Smith” who relayed that the suspension without pay had been changed to suspension with pay. This, Smith later stated to the council, was due to a verbal directive from City Attorney William Kim.

Kim’s office directed requests for comment to the mayor. Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

Then the discipline slid further: The chief’s decision to terminate—he referred to it as a “recommendation” at the council meeting—was altered to a suspension “pending investigation,” he said, “through advisement” from Kim, Smith and City Administrator Clyde Edwards. Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.

“So the decision was made above your… paygrade to let the chips fall where they currently are today, is that what you’re stating?” Council member Dennis Pfeiffer later asked.

“Suspension, yes,” Barton replied.

Ultimately, Sniegocki was allowed to resign without any further consequences. Zlotek—who searched the side of the room that did not contain the boys—was allowed to return to work after two weeks’ suspension and a course in search and rescue training.

In the August press release issued by the city that publicly announced the decision to let Zlotek back on board, Mayor Neeley and Chief Barton appeared unified.

“I have full confidence in the thorough investigation conducted and ultimately, Chief Barton’s decision,” read a statement from Mayor Neeley, which also stressed that safety and security of Flint residents “must not be compromised”

“We demand that our firefighters protect and serve our citizens; therefore, we must have the highest standards for their performance and zero tolerance for those who don’t meet expectations. I stand with the fire department and our community in continuing to lift the family in prayer.”

But by the time of the city council meeting this month, their united front had begun to unravel.

“By you getting overridden and overruled, what did that do to the morale of the other officers or the other firefighters that want accountability, that do a good job?” queried Pfeiffer.

“Let’s say it for what it is—it split the department,” Barton replied.

Nick Reinato, the first vice president of Flint’s firefighter union, told The Daily Beast that they could not comment on the events of the fire or its aftermath, due to pending arbitration between the city and the union on Zlotek’s suspension. The City of Flint gave the same reason for not answering further questions.

At the end of the council meeting, the five members present all voted for an independent investigation into the fire.

But in interviews with The Daily Beast, Council Members Eric Mays and Tonya Burns wasted little time in squarely blaming Mayor Neeley—who they claimed must have been the one who overrode the fire chief.

“He chose to keep it quiet. When you have two Black children—and of course, in anything the race card will be played—when it was two white firefighters that went in initially, and they did not go in. And then you’ve got two Black firefighters who came and found the children,” Burns told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Then … they lied on the reports and then it was covered up … it needs to be at the Department of Justice.”

“There’s only one person who can say I don’t want them terminated,” she later added.

On Nov. 8, Neeley will face off against ex-mayor Karen Weaver for re-election in a race that he is far from certain to win.

Neeley was recently revealed to have long claimed to hold a college degree that does not exist—and has refused to join Weaver at a debate, which his team told MLive would “give a platform to vitriol and disinformation” from Weaver’s campaign.

In the primary race for mayor, a razor-thin margin separated the two—a difference of only 205 votes.

Burns urged the city to release documents that she said the law department has denied to her—including the city attorney’s original recommendation on the matter to the mayor. She believes those documents may confirm that Mayor Neeley went against even his own lawyer’s recommendation.

“He’s worried about it being a political suicide, as opposed to two little children who lost their lives,” she claimed.

In an interview, Cooper remembered her boy Zyaire as an avid athlete and clarinet player who was considering switching over to the drumset. Lamar was a happy kid with a TikTok addiction who loved to incessantly call and text his mom when she didn’t immediately respond to him during her work days as a nurse.

“Nothing’s going to make me feel better,” Cooper said. “But at least getting justice for my children can be a start.”

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