Fatal fire draws charges

State agency says city fire officials knowingly violated safety rules

Sun Exclusive

June 27, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

A state agency charged the Baltimore City Fire Department yesterday with "intentionally" and "knowingly" violating safety rules resulting in "a substantial probability [of] death or serious physical harm" during a Feb. 9 training exercise that killed a fire cadet.

The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, after a five-month investigation, cited the department for 33 safety violations and singled out two fire commanders for the haphazard planning and execution of the live burn that claimed the life of Racheal M. Wilson, 29, and injured two others in a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road in Southwest Baltimore.

The charging document, obtained by The Sun, marked the first time that an outside agency has rendered judgment on the department's conduct in the incident and provided fresh details of what went wrong.

It said that eight fires -- not seven as the Fire Department previously reported -- were lit by three people inside the rowhouse while the safety officer stood outside. One blaze was set on the first floor, five on the second floor and two on the third floor, the document said.

National standards require that only one person -- an ignition officer -- should set the fire and that only one blaze should be set at a time.

The newly disclosed information also showed that firefighters and trainees inside the burning building were not wearing proper breathing or safety gear and that when the fire got out of control one instructor abandoned four trainees.

Also, when the cadets entered the burning building, the backup hose line, which should have been charged with water in case of emergency, was "rolled up on the back of a pickup truck," according to the document. It said there was no water reserve available for the burn.

National regulations require a hose line to be charged and ready to put out a training blaze from the moment it is ignited.

The Fire Department is required to respond in writing by Monday showing how it will abate the violations.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who is attending a seminar at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, could not be reached for comment.

But his spokesman, Rick Binetti, said yesterday that the department has already taken steps to remedy the safety concerns outlined by the labor department, including ending the practice of staging live burns off of academy grounds.

"The biggest thing is that live burns in acquired structures are indefinitely put on hold," Binetti said.

Most big-city fire departments train cadets at specially constructed buildings and do not ignite vacant rowhouses to practice extinguishing fires.

Binetti also said the Fire Department has beefed up its safety office and assigned a safety officer specifically to work at the department's training academy.

While the report did not include names, it blamed some of the violations on the burn's safety officer and its instructor in charge. The Fire Department has previously identified the two as Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., who has been fired, and Lt. Joseph Crest, who is under suspension and facing termination.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said that she has not yet reviewed the state charges.

"I think we all share a great deal of disappointment to find ourselves in this situation," he said. "We have to take seriously, very seriously, the findings of this professional organization."

"Things have to change. People will be held accountable," he said. "Dixon is committed to changing the culture of this department."

Another fire officer involved with the burn, Lt. Barry Broyles, the head of a rescue team, was suspended from the department and an internal panel of his peers recommended last month that he be fired.

All 33 violations were labeled "serious," meaning there was "a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result," according to definitions of the violations listed in the charging document.

Of those, 17 were also labeled "willful," meaning "the employer committed an intentional and knowing violation" or acted with "plain indifference to or in careless disregard of employer responsibilities."

The charges dealt exclusively with the fatal live burn on Feb. 9 and did not address other incidents. The day before, for example, two firefighters were injured at a live burn in a vacant house in East Baltimore. It was unclear from the charging document whether the earlier burn was, or is, being investigated.

Officials from the Department of Labor could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Some of the information in yesterday's report had already been outlined in the Fire Department's preliminary investigation released in February, but the state report included a new level of detail and directly accused fire commanders of misconduct.

One citation said the instructor-in-charge -- Crest -- "did not stop the live-fire training evolution when multiple fires set on three floors of the burn building created the potential for a rapid uncontrolled burn."

Another said the safety officer -- Hyde -- should have prevented instructors from lighting the multiple fires. He also failed to remove debris from the building, ensure that backup hose lines were in place and establish emergency exits, according to the charging document.

When the house was set on fire it contained "mattresses, broken window frames, trees and brush, tires, lumber, street lamp, trash, drywall and insulation," the document said. Such materials -- particularly the tires -- can release toxic smoke.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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