Cadet's death seen as a crime

Kin calls it `murder' after reading report

August 24, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Relatives and friends of the Baltimore fire cadet killed in a training exercise called her death an avoidable tragedy yesterday after reviewing an independent report that outlines 50 safety violations from the February fire in a vacant house.

"This is something criminal," said Percilla Neal, the mother of Racheal M. Wilson's longtime boyfriend. "I would call it murder. They put her in a position that she shouldn't have been in."

The 121-page report, commissioned by Mayor Sheila Dixon after the Feb. 9 training death, found that Wilson was given pants too worn-out to protect her, that her instructor had never led recruits before, and that fires were set all over a decaying rowhouse. It also found that there were safety violations at a similar exercise held one day before Wilson died.

With the report's release, the Vulcan Blazers, the city's African-American firefighters organization, released a three-page statement last night, noting that the investigation "gives a clear picture" of Wilson's death and sheds light on dangerous training practices at the fire academy.

The report was posted on the mayor's Web site yesterday, but details were first reported Tuesday in The Sun. The author of the report, Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Chris Shimer declined to be interviewed through a county spokesman.

Dixon did not hold a news conference yesterday, as had been initially planned, but she said earlier in the week that the report's findings made her confidence in Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. "very questionable." Dixon has also said she has concerns about why the firefighters present at the fatal burn did not object when they saw multiple safety violations.

Other mayoral candidates weighed in on Goodwin's future yesterday, with Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. saying for that he "supports Goodwin's resignation."

Clerk of the Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway sent out a news release that said: "Wilson's death should be considered manslaughter because of the reckless way the live-burn exercise was handled."

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a candidate for City Council president, called for Goodwin to step down Wednesday. Both Fire Department unions have held multiple no-confidence votes in his leadership.

But members of Wilson's family said that they support the chief. Neal, the grandmother of Wilson's daughter, called him "very compassionate."

"He has admitted that the Fire Department failed her," Neal said. "It takes a man to admit his mistakes. What I see as the people to blame are the people who were there. Those are who were responsible and should be the ones to lose their jobs."

Three of the fire commanders who were at the scene have lost their jobs. Division Chief Kenneth Hyde, who headed the training academy, was fired by Dixon in February. Lts. Joseph Crest and Barry Broyles, who played key roles setting up the exercise, were fired this month.

Ambrose Slaughter, Wilson's stepfather, declined to comment on the report. He and Wilson's mother live in Denver.

Louise Holley, the great-grandmother of Wilson's daughter, asked: "Where is the professionalism in the Fire Department? You are supposed to save lives." She spoke sitting in her living room and surrounded by television cameras.

Neal, Holley's daughter, was also there, and said she is still reading the 121-page report. "It seems to me like chaos," she said. "I don't think any of the students were ready to fight that fire."

The instructors who set up multiple fires when only one is allowed for a training exercise, failed to clear the building of debris and didn't tell the cadets what they would face are culpable for her death, Neal said, based on what she's read so far in the report.

Neal said that both of Wilson's children - Princess, 12, and Cameron, 9 - are in counseling and frequently break down in tears, particularly when news about the training accident is in the media.

Neal disputed the report's findings that Wilson's lack of fitness inhibited her ability to fight fires. "If she was in such awful shape why wasn't she released from the academy?" Neal asked. "If she wasn't physically fit, why did they send her into a burning building?"

The autopsy report, prepared by the state's medical examiner, found that Wilson was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 192 pounds. But Neal said she believes that weight is wrong.

The independent report recommended that the Fire Department implement a physical fitness test as a condition for employment.

"Racheal was a sacrificial lamb," Neal said. "I hope that the ones in charge would make sure nothing like this happens again."

Neal had prepared two pages of handwritten notes before talking with reporters yesterday and said that there were a number of people she wanted to thank. One was emergency vehicle driver Michael Hiebler, the man who ultimately carried Wilson's body out of the fire.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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