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City 'Ignored' Legionnaires' Death of Bronx Teacher in April, Family Says

By Murray Weiss | August 6, 2015 11:47am | Updated on August 6, 2015 7:23pm
 James Rouse was the 'canary in a coal mine' for the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, his brother said.
James Rouse was the 'canary in a coal mine' for the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, his brother said.
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Family of James Rouse

THE BRONX — A music teacher who worked with special needs children in a South Bronx public school near the center of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak died from the illness in April, DNAinfo New York has learned.

James Rouse's family claims the city failed to investigate the 52-year-old's death, which could possibly have prevented the outbreak that has killed ten more people and sickened nearly 100 over the past month.

“My brother was the canary in the coal mine and the city ignored his death,” said John Rouse, a Suffolk County civil court judge and former prosecutor.

James Rouse taught at The Urban Science Academy, P.S. 325, on Teller Avenue. A nationally known pianist and marathoner, Rouse died April 30 at Beth Israel Hospital, roughly a week after being diagnosed with Legionnaires' Disease.

“Had the city looked at his case when it was happening to him, and tried to speak with him while he was alive, or even conducted a proper investigation afterwards, they might have been able to prevent those seven people from dying,” John Rouse told “On The Inside” before the other deaths were reported by the city.

“We believe the city was absolutely asleep at the switch, and that it took 80 people to become ill before they started to look at this,” he said.

The Health Department did not immediately comment but said they were looking into the matter. (See Update Below).

James Rouse performed at The Pierre Hotel and Tavern on the Green before embarking on a personal mission to help mentally and physically challenged school kids, according his family.

He grew up in Port Jefferson on Long Island, attended Catholic schools and went to Ithaca College School of Music on a scholarship. He graduated at the top of class and received his Masters in Special Education at a special ceremony at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center, his brother said.

Motivated by his admiration for a teacher who had inspired him, Rouse decided in 2001 to combine his two passions — music and working with special needs kids — and got a job teaching music. Two years ago, he transferred to P.S. 325, taking the subway from his Chelsea home to, and from, the Concourse Plaza, which is now at the epicenter of the Legionnaires' outbreak.


Rouse, who never missed a day of work, became slightly feverish and sluggish, his brother said. But he continued showing up to teach until the school principal insisted he return home. 

Within days, Rouse was admitted to Beth Israel on April 22.

His physicians determined quickly that he had Legionnaires' disease, his brother said. Yet even on days when Rouse weakened, doctors assured his family he should recover.

Then, on April 30, he died.

“I will never forget the phone call,” John Rouse said. “I was shocked and surprised. The only obstacle they had been talking about was a discharge plan.”

For weeks, John Rouse said his family persisted in reaching out to Health Department representatives. They wanted answers how a healthy man could suddenly fall fatally ill. But city officials “simply ignored my brother's case."

The Rouses tried to do their own sleuthing. They filed Freedom of Information requests to learn where other Legionnaires' cases occurred in the city. But each request was rebuffed.

On June 5, they made yet another call to the Health Department “to get an update,” but were told by a supervisor that there was virtually nothing the agency would do unless a pattern of other cases showed up — in the same building.

“He then said, 'The case was closed,'” John Rouse explained. “We were told they did not have the resources.”

"This is a complete farce," he continued. “They could have been all over the school before he died, or at the hospital talking to him while he was still alive.”

In early July, the Rouses reached out again to get the city's attention, only to be told no other cases surfaced where James lived in Manhattan.

They were dismayed at the lack of action — particularly since his brother was not only a city employee but worked with school children, and questioned whether proper protocols exist. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that the city was working on legislation to check the cooling towers atop buildings where the legionella bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease grows and can be spread.

FAQ: What is Legionnaires' Disease?

John Rouse said he was stunned when de Blasio and Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said the fatalities were only people who were either elderly or had pre-existing medical issues

His brother was a marathoner.

And he became angry watching the mayor's press conference Tuesday where he pulled out charts insisting the outbreak started on July 12.

“I have the ashes of the person who contracted this disease in April, and he worked for the city, and in that area,” John Rouse said. "If my brother was the beginning of this, then all that came afterwards could have technically been prevented. And these were preventable deaths.”

Rouse said his family wants "to find out what the city knew to hopefully prevent something like this from happening again.”


Late Thursday, a Health Department spokesman insisted his agency “investigates every single case of Legionnaires’ when it is reported to us," and that DOH did not "rebuff" the Rouse family.

“We speak to either the patient or a close family to assess environmental exposures that could be the source of infection. In this case we interviewed the patient’s sister (on May 5) since the patient had unfortunately died before we able to speak with him. (There) were multiple conversations in the months that followed," he wrote.

An investigation was undertaken to identify sources of exposure. None could be identified. Proper protocols were followed.