No discipline planned for firefighter's delay Commanders say man accused of slowing rescue suffered from exhaustion

December 06, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore firefighter accused of blocking rescue efforts by refusing to go up a smoky stairway while fighting a fatal fire suffered from exhaustion and will not be disciplined, a two-day investigation has concluded.

Fire commanders said the firefighter, James Williams, caused a 30- to 40-second delay for his colleagues trying to reach the second floor, but they said other firefighters using ladders had gained entry to where the 7-year-old child was found dead.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman, said officials believe Randi E. McDonald was dead before firefighters arrived at the Upton rowhouse in the 500 block of McMechen St. on Thanksgiving.

Torres said Williams, 46, was the first firefighter to go into the house and was responsible for extinguishing the bulk of the raging fire on the porch and two first-floor rooms before being ordered up the stairs to search for the missing child.

"He made a valiant effort to get upstairs, but he finally became exhausted," Torres said. The spokesman declined to comment on whether Williams was physically fit or release the full investigative report.

Torres called the delay "a minor incident that occurred on the fireground" that should not have been made public.

Department officials issued a two-page news release that offers quotations from unnamed firefighters. Torres said no one interviewed supported assertions by sources quoted in The Sun who said Williams froze in the stairwell.

Torres said that at the time, many firefighters inside the building did not understand why Williams would not move.

According to the release, Williams told investigators: "As I reached the stairwell landing I attempted to catch my breath and I got overheated. I was hyperventilating, my chest was tight. I passed the hose line to my acting lieutenant and he proceeded ahead."

Sources had told The Sun that Williams, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, had to be removed from the stairwell. Torres said yesterday that firefighters were yelling at him to go upstairs and then pushed by him.

Williams has been on medical leave for stress, and Torres said yesterday that no date has been set for his return to active duty. He said there are no plans to transfer Williams from Engine Co. 13.

The accusations have angered Randi's relatives, who are staying in temporary city-provided housing in the Perkins Homes public housing complex in Southeast Baltimore. The funeral for Randi was Thursday.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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