High window, trapped boot

Fire Department report details events and mistakes that led to recruit's death

February 24, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey | Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey,Sun reporters

For the cadets of Academy Class 19, the late Friday morning training exercise was a chance to escape their classrooms and battle a fire in a real building. They gathered at 145 S. Calverton Road, a run-down rowhouse long abandoned by its owner, boarded up and claimed by the city.

Instructors ignited seven fires on wooden pallets scattered inside the home, in hallways, bedrooms and closets. Fire Apprentice Racheal M. Wilson, a 29-year-old mother of two who had begun training in November, grabbed a hose and led other cadets inside.

It was supposed to be a routine exercise.

But a 27-page report released yesterday by the Fire Department details a training exercise that seemed designed to put recruits in danger.

No instructors were inside the burning building to help the recruits. No radios were available to use if they needed to call for help. More than one fire was set, in violation of national standards that limit training blazes to one.

The rowhouse itself, the report says, was never supposed to be used in a live burn. Two weeks earlier, recruits had used the dwelling to practice pulling down walls and ceilings - actions that, the report says, "enabled the fire to spread."

It appeared Wilson had little chance from the time she walked through the front door until she became trapped in a window on the third floor, where she succumbed to smoke and flames.

Among the last words anyone heard from Wilson, the report says, were her warnings to two classmates to get out of the burning building.

Firefighters who returned to the rowhouse more than a week later found her boot frozen in the charred debris, near the window from which she had tried to escape. Investigators say they believe that one of Wilson's feet broke through a weakened floor and got stuck.

This week, two fire officers were suspended without pay and the head of the training academy, Kenneth Hyde Sr., was fired.

Yesterday, Hyde's lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, said his client is "extremely disappointed" and feels he is being made a scapegoat. "He feels as if it was not based on a thorough investigation," O'Neill said. "What is shocking is that he never had the opportunity ... to be heard. I think he is being made a scapegoat for lapses in safety that had nothing to do with his overall job and responsibilities."

The report offers the first detailed chronology of the fatal training exercise Feb. 9 that involved more than 45 firefighters:

Wilson was assigned to Engine 1, which was led by instructor Ryan Wenger and included recruits Stephanie Cisneros, Angel Perez and Benjamin Lichtenberg.

The four entered the rowhouse about 11:35 a.m., Wilson in the lead and holding a hose. As they rushed up to the second floor to put out a fire at the top of the stairs, the hose Wilson was carrying was charged with water. The force knocked her backward.

Wenger grabbed the hose and extinguished the fire in the hallway, while Cisneros helped Wilson to her feet.

Another fire burned on the second floor, but the crew of Engine 1 did not put it out. Instead, they were instructed to climb to the third floor, leaving the fire to burn underneath them - which firefighters are trained never to do, except in extreme rescue situations.

It remains unclear who instructed the team to ascend above the second-floor fire.

Holding the hose again, Wilson reached the top of the stairs leading to the third floor and began pouring water on the fire. Wenger, Perez and Lichtenberg were standing behind her.

By then, the fire from the second floor had reached the stairwell, burning Cisneros on her left leg as she climbed the steps. Cisneros told Wenger she needed to get out of the building.

Wenger jumped out the window in the stairwell and pulled Cisneros out after him, onto the roof of a second-floor overhang. He looked into the building to check on Wilson, and she appeared at the window, but without the hose.

Wilson tried to climb out, but couldn't. The stairwell's windowsill, investigators would later determine, was unusually high - nearly 3 1/2 feet off the floor.

Without a radio, Wenger had to yell for help to firefighters on the third-floor roof. Wilson slipped off the windowsill and back into the burning building. Moments later, she reappeared at the window, her face mask off and her helmet dangling off her head by a strap.

She tried to climb through the window but her foot might have come entangled in wire mesh. She was stuck, half her body hanging outside, half inside.

A recruit on the roof picked up a radio and called for help: "We have a trapped firefighter and a hurt firefighter and we can't get her out. We need help up here now."

Wenger saw that Wilson's face had started to burn. Wenger and the three who rushed to help him - instructor John Lotz and recruits Kevin Larkins and Brandon Thibeault - again tried to pull Wilson out. By then, she was barely conscious.

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