Exhaustion might be cause of firefighter's hesitation He is accused of blocking narrow stairs at fatal fire

December 05, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore firefighter under scrutiny for allegedly balking and blocking a stairway in a burning rowhouse during a search for a missing child may have been overcome by exhaustion, a source close to the investigation said yesterday.

A high-ranking Fire Department source said commanders have interviewed more than half the firefighters who worked the blaze Thanksgiving Day in the 500 block of McMechen St. that claimed the life of 7-year-old Randi E. McDonald.

Based on those interviews, the source said, investigators believe that firefighter James Williams, 46, might have been tired after dragging a hose through a living room and extinguishing flames that had erupted around him.

The source said officials expect the investigation to be completed by today and Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., who is not related to the firefighter, most likely will disclose the findings today.

James Williams has been accused by colleagues at Engine Company 13, whose station is about four blocks from the house that burned, of freezing in a narrow stairwell, delaying other firefighters from reaching the second floor where they had been told a child was hiding.

Firefighters said Williams had to be pushed out of the way, causing a 90-second delay. Other firefighters climbed through second-floor windows and found Randi's body in a bedroom.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman, declined to comment yesterday on the investigation. He said Wednesday that because of the intensity of the fire, Randi most likely was dead before firefighters arrived at the Upton rowhouse.

The accusations have angered Randi's relatives, who buried her yesterday. They have repeatedly complained that firefighters took too long to get to the house despite repeated calls to 911.

Torres said Wednesday that dispatchers received only one call.

An investigative source said Williams, who is on medical leave for stress, has been questioned. But the source would not disclose Williams' statements.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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