Annapolis fire official retires amid U.S. probe into black man's death Captain says departure not linked to allegations of denying aid, racial slur

September 21, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A veteran Annapolis fire captain has retired amid a federal probe into allegations that he refused to help a black man, who had suffered a heart attack, and used a racial slur to refer to the man after the man died.

Gene Kirchner, a 30-year veteran, would not comment on the allegations yesterday. He denied that his departure had anything to with the investigation. "I wanted to retire," said Kirchner, who is white.

A spokesman for Baltimore's FBI office, Special Agent Larry K. Foust, said a federal civil rights investigation was launched several weeks ago and could result in criminal charges.

Kirchner, 54, said he retired Friday, a day before the investigation became public in the Washington Post, raising questions among black politicians in Maryland's capital.

Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights leader who lost the Democratic Party's mayoral nomination Tuesday, said he is upset that the city council did not know of the allegations until they became public in a newspaper.

"I think the city leaders should move very rapidly to assure the citizens that if this incident occurred, it will never occur again," Snowden said. "It is alleged that [the captain] prevented paramedics from giving life support to someone. That is criminal."

Snowden warned that the city could be in "serious, serious trouble" with a lawsuit, and he said Kirchner's retirement "won't end this controversy." He promised to launch a city council investigation tomorrow.

City officials reached yesterday declined to comment, saying the TC issue is a personnel matter.

"Our policy is to neither confirm or deny," said Fire Chief Edward P. Sherlock Jr. "I'm not saying nothing is being done. I'm just saying no comment."

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins said he was informed of the investigation several weeks ago and said such conduct, if it occurred, would not be tolerated among any public safety officials.

But the mayor said he will not get involved in the internal matter until it is completed. "I do not conduct investigations," Hopkins said. "I do not ask questions, because, if I ask questions, I can only confuse [the investigators]."

Fire Lt. Anthony Spencer, president of the Black Firefighters Association in Annapolis, said white firefighters have been investigated for racial insensitivity in the past, but this was the worst allegation he has heard of in his 23-year career.

"I am very much appalled," Spencer said. "Hopefully, justice will be served and will take its course. I can't say I've ever seen something like this."

Spencer and Snowden commended two white paramedics who reportedly complained about Kirchner during the incident, which began late July 13, in an apartment on Primrose Court, with a call seeking help for an unconscious 28-year-old man.

"This might never have been brought to the public's attention had there been a code of silence in the Annapolis Fire Department," Snowden said.

The Fire Department has been operating under a federal consent decree since 1985, when black firefighters filed a lawsuit alleging they were victims of disparate hiring practices.

The decree orders that the department's members reflect the 30 percent minority population in the city. Thirteen of the 94 firefighters on staff, 14 percent, are African-American. The Board of Aldermen recently voted to extend the decree to give the department more time to comply.

City officials and the FBI would not comment on specifics of the case yesterday. "It's a pending matter," the FBI's Foust said. "As with all civil rights investigations, we will investigate the matter thoroughly, and once it has been completed, we will forward the information to the Department of Justice to decide whether charges should be brought."

Kirchner, reached by telephone yesterday at his Annapolis home, also would not comment. "I don't want to talk about it," he said, referring questions to his lawyer, Jeffrey Marcalus.

Marcalus could not be reached for comment yesterday. But, according to the Post article, he denied the allegations made against his client, calling them "unsubstantiated charges."

The Post, citing an investigative report, said an ambulance with two paramedics arrived at the unidentified 28-year-old man's home at 11: 41 p.m. July 13. About 10 seconds later, a fire truck with three firefighters arrived.

According to the Post, the investigative report says that the firefighters did not follow the paramedics into the building, as they are required to do. One firefighter told city officials that he started to enter the building, but Kirchner stopped him, the Post said.

A paramedic told investigators that he and his partner treated the patient for about five minutes and repeatedly requested help from the fire crew, according to the Post's account, which added that a dispatcher sent a second fire truck to the scene.

The man was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center and pronounced dead at 12: 24 a.m. July 14, according to the documents obtained by the Post. Kirchner reportedly went to the hospital to pick up a firefighter who had accompanied the ambulance.

One of the firefighters reportedly heard Kirchner call the paramedic's efforts "a waste of personnel on this [expletive] nigger," the newspaper reported, citing the internal documents.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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