Officer said to balk at fatal fire Firefighter is accused of blocking stairs at house where girl died

December 04, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A headline in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly identified a Baltimore firefighter as an "officer."

The Sun regrets the error.

A Baltimore firefighter is being accused by colleagues of balking and blocking a stairway of a burning rowhouse during a search for a missing child who later was found dead.

There is no evidence that the delay, about 90 seconds, contributed to the death on Thanksgiving of 7-year-old Randi E. McDonald, whose body was found in a rear bedroom on the second floor of the three-story rowhouse in the Upton neighborhood.


But at the time the firefighter, identified as James Williams, 46, was ordered up the stairs, rescuers at the scene did not know whether the child was alive. Failing to search for a victim, even in the most perilous conditions, is considered a breach of the firefighter's oath.

Colleagues of the firefighter, who recently transferred to one of the city's busiest stations, are denouncing the alleged misconduct.

"It's an affront to what we do," one fire commander said.

Several officials, who spoke on the condition their names not be used, said the firefighter had to be removed from the stairwell, where he froze.

"It came as close to an altercation as you can get," one source said.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman, confirmed that commanders are investigating Williams, a seven-year veteran. After the fire, Williams was placed on medical leave for stress.

Williams is assigned to Engine Company 13, at McMechen Street and Madison Avenue in West Baltimore, which is about four blocks from the house that burned in the 500 block of McMechen St., near Pennsylvania Avenue.

Torres cautioned that investigators have not interviewed Williams or other firefighters involved, because they were off yesterday. He said he is worried that preliminary information may lead people to falsely conclude that Randi's death could have been avoided.

"My concern is the impression that the family of the victim may get from your report," Torres said. "The home was completely engulfed when firefighters arrived. There was no chance of survival for the victim."

Williams could not be reached for comment yesterday. Several messages left at his home were not returned. Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, acting battalion chief for the fatal fire and president of a union representing fire officers, declined to comment yesterday.

Rick Schluderberg, vice president of the firefighters union, also declined to comment, saying he was unaware of the allegations.

Randi's relatives, who are living in a temporary, city-provided apartment in the Perkins Homes public housing complex in Southeast Baltimore, reacted with anger yesterday when told of the accusations.

They and neighbors have complained since the day of the fire that repeated calls to 911 dispatchers went unheeded, causing inappropriate delays by firefighters whose station is blocks away.

"It was handled poorly," said Sabrina Bond, 28, an aunt of the victim. "That firefighter shouldn't have been there if he wasn't ready. And we could have walked down the street and gotten the hose ourselves to put the fire out. Why did it take them so long? Who is responsible and who is going to answer for this?"

But Torres said only one 911 call was received. He added that neighbors were banging on the doors of Engine Company 13 at the same time the call was being dispatched at 10: 48 a.m. He said fire engines arrived at the house one minute later.

The spokesman said the fire most likely had been burning for several minutes before firefighters were alerted because bystanders tried to rescue the child before they called for help.

"We responded very quickly," Torres said. "No one called the Fire Department right away."

A cause for the one-alarm fire has not been determined. Randi was the 21st person to die in a city fire this year.

Officials said their investigation is focusing on what happened inside the house as firefighters tried to put out the fire and search for victims.

Sources, who include top fire commanders and firefighters who fought the blaze, said Williams was in charge of getting rescuers into the burning house. He was carrying a hose and entered through the front door.

Sources said he dragged the hose through the living room, which had become engulfed in flames, and stepped onto the stairway. "We had reports from dispatch that there were children trapped on the second floor," one firefighter said.

Partway up the narrow stairwell, sources said, the firefighter froze and refused to budge. His partner, whose name could not be learned, helps hold the hose and was stuck behind him. "They literally blocked the staircase," another firefighter said.

Eventually, sources said, Williams was pushed out of the way.

Meanwhile, other firefighters entered the second floor of the house from ladders. They initially were told that Randi was in the front bedroom. But her body was recovered from a rear bedroom, where she apparently had tried to hide from heat and smoke. A source said she died of smoke inhalation.

Randi's funeral is scheduled for 12: 30 p.m. today at City Temple Baptist Church at 317 Dolphin St. She was a second-grader at Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, and relatives said yesterday that she loved to read, play with Barbie dolls and sing. She had two brothers, ages 12 and 14.

Her aunt Plejette Pharr, 27, who raised Randi since the girl's mother died five years ago, said Randi wanted to become a nurse when she grew up. She didn't belong to a church but attended services every Sunday.

Said her grandmother, Betty Baker, 54: "She warmed the heart of everyone she came in contact with."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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