Burning issue

City Fire Department e-mails raise questions about how officials chose the site for a live-burn exercise in which a 29-year-old recruit was killed

Sun follow-up

March 02, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

The former director of the Baltimore Fire Department's training academy used a rowhouse for a live-fire exercise in which a recruit died even though he had earlier expressed reservations about the suitability of the building, according to e-mails obtained by The Sun.

Kenneth Hyde Sr., who was fired because safety rules were violated during the fire, had rejected a suggestion that he burn a rowhouse on a city housing department list of buildings that could be used by recruits to practice tearing down ceilings and walls.

"No Sir we used the good ones," Hyde wrote to Deputy Chief Theodore Saunders in an e-mail dated Jan. 22, indicating that he knew previous exercises had rendered the structures unsuitable for training fire.

But on Feb. 9, Hyde did burn a building from the department's list: a vacant three-story rowhouse at 145 S. Calverton Road. Cadet Racheal M. Wilson, 29, was killed in the blaze, which, fire officials say, violated 36 safety standards.

Hyde, through his lawyer, maintains that he had oral permission from Saunders to burn 145 S. Calverton Road, and he provided e-mails to The Sun that he said supported his position. He did not comment further.

Saunders disputes that account, said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Fire Department. The department also provided The Sun with internal e-mails.

Instructors set seven separate fires in the South Calverton Road rowhouse, at least one of which went out of control and spread quickly through the open spaces left by the earlier training exercise.

Wilson, trapped in a third-floor window without a radio or backup with a hose charged with water, became a casualty of an exercise the Fire Department says was riddled with safety violations. The exercise prompted Hyde's termination and the suspension of two top lieutenants.

The live-burn exercise tarnished the reputation of an otherwise well-regarded fire department and prompted Mayor Sheila Dixon to tap the Howard County Fire Department to review training and safety standards.

Hyde has taken the brunt of the blame. In news conferences, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. has accused Hyde of lying, saying that in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Hyde assured commanders that all safety standards had been followed. Goodwin stood next to Dixon at a City Hall news conference and said Hyde never had permission to burn 145 S. Calverton Road.

Crucial question

How that decision came to be made is a continuing source of debate.

The e-mails reviewed by The Sun started the day after New Year's, when Saunders asked the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for a list of dwellings that could be used for training exercises in which academy recruits would tear down walls and ceilings.

"We are not going to burn them," Saunders emphasized in an e-mail to Michael Braverman, the deputy housing commissioner for code enforcement.

Jerome Dorich, in charge of demolition for the housing department, responded the next morning with a list of possible dwellings, including a strip of empty rowhouses on South Calverton Road. Dorich warned that the buildings were in poor condition.

"Keep in mind that these structures have been previously condemned unsafe for various reasons," the e-mail says. "Review these buildings with this in mind."

The housing department asked to be informed when and which the buildings would be used for training. On Jan. 4, Saunders complied, saying in an e-mail that recruits would, that day, pull ceilings at 143 and 145 S. Calverton Road.

Weeks later, on Jan. 22, Hyde went looking for rowhouses to burn. On the morning of Jan. 22, he wrote to Saunders: "Chief I need 2 good dwellings for burning on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9. Can you please check and advise."

Saunders replied seven minutes later, asking about the list the housing department had supplied in early January, when Saunders said he needed buildings for non-burn exercises.

`Used the good ones'

"Are there any left from the list we had several weeks ago?" Saunders asked in that e-mail.

One minute later, Hyde wrote that there were none, that "we used the good ones."

Meanwhile, Saunders wrote a separate e-mail to the housing department and asked whether it had additional vacant buildings, according to correspondence reviewed by The Sun. Hyde was not copied on these e-mails.

Dorich replied, telling Saunders that the housing department did not have buildings suitable for burns, according to the e-mail. But on Feb. 5, Rosa Diaz, a housing department official, wrote Saunders and told him she was still trying to find two houses for the live-burn exercise.

New source of houses

The next day, Braverman, the code enforcement official, wrote a long note to Saunders and suggested contacting a company that takes over vacant city houses for redevelopment. Braverman included the name and phone number of a contact to call.

Saunders forwarded the e-mail to Hyde, who talked with the developer. On Feb. 8, Hyde burned one of the developer's buildings on Sinclair Lane.

But Hyde still needed a building for the Feb. 9 exercise. He chose a rowhouse on South Calverton Road, one he had previously rejected as unsuitable in his e-mail exchange with Saunders.

Hyde's lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, said: "The burn was approved by senior management."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Online

Archive text and photographs, at baltimoresun.com/recruit

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