An orange glow punctured the dark horizon on a winter morning. A Baltimore City fire engine raced toward it, those on board ready to fight the massive blaze.
Flames consumed all three floors of a vacant rowhouse in West Baltimore. As the fire engine neared West Pratt and South Stricker streets, a dispatcher radioed an update to the four-person crew: “Report of persons trapped.”
Five minutes after Engine 14 arrived, the building caved in, collapsing onto six firefighters. Three died.
Although the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined in April that the fire was set during criminal activity, either intentionally or accidentally, and the firefighters’ deaths were classified as homicides, few other details about the cause have been released. After a $100,000 reward was posted, the ATF released surveillance images of a man it described as a person of interest, but he hasn’t been publicly identified or arrested.
A recent safety inspection report from the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division, which investigates workplace injuries and deaths, offers new information about the minutes leading up to the collapse and a desperate effort by firefighters to dig their friends out of the rubble by hand.
The report is based on a series of interviews with people who had been at the scene, including two other firefighters who were trapped beneath the debris. The interviewees described the events of that day to two MOSH compliance officers. The Baltimore Sun contacted the firefighters interviewed, but they either declined to comment or did not respond.
‘We got you’
The Jan. 24 alarm for a dwelling fire in the Mount Clare neighborhood came in at a shift change. For some, the 5:50 a.m. call would be the first of their 24-hour shifts. Others stayed on and work overtime. At multiple fire stations in West Baltimore, firefighters roused from bed and rushed to the scene.
Members of Engine 14 — Lt. Kelsey Sadler, firefighter/paramedic Kenny Lacayo, firefighter/EMT John McMaster and firefighter/pump operator Craig McClung — were the first to reach the burning rowhouse. The crews of Fire Truck 23, commanded by Lt. Paul Butrim, and Engine 36 were close behind.
Sadler, who was posthumously promoted from acting lieutenant to lieutenant, was in command of the fire scene until a battalion chief arrived. Sadler and her crew ran into the house, along with Butrim and two other members of Engine 36 — Kenneth Hoffman and Mike Shiloh. They quickly doused flames on the first floor as the blaze raged through the floors above.
The house was the second to last in a row, sandwiched between another vacant property and a house occupied by a family with children. Butrim, tasked with searching for victims, headed toward a staircase to the second floor, while Sadler, Lacayo and McMaster blasted water on hot spots that risked igniting again.
There was no creaking sound. No warning crack of burning wood. Just a sudden, sickening snap, followed by three booms as floor after floor crashed into the basement.
“Back out, back out!” Battalion Chief John Ellis called into the radio. “Do we have anybody in there? We just had a collapse. Mayday, mayday, mayday!”
Before the collapse, Lt. Chad Hines and Hoffman stood on the house’s front stoop and worried. They didn’t like the look of the exposed ceiling beams that supported the vacant building’s floors. Wood beams that lack the protection of plastic or drywall are directly damaged by flames during a fire, causing a structure to quickly weaken.
Hines, holding a hose, had tried minutes earlier to radio for McClung to pump water from the engine but couldn’t get through the heavy radio traffic. Hines left the stoop to tell Ellis, the battalion chief who had just arrived, about the threatening fire conditions inside. Hoffman, meanwhile, entered the house and yelled for everyone to pull out.
Hines turned and walked back to the stoop, where he watched the house crumple.
Moments before, Shiloh had just crossed the first floor when he noticed something strange on the ground — a piece of the floor above him. Then, things went blurry.
Christopher Kwarta, who drove Truck 23, was about to step onto the roof from an aerial ladder when he realized the roof was no longer there. Sean Davis, also assigned to Truck 23, peered inside the house after pulling plywood off a boarded, first-floor window and saw members of Engine 14 inside. It all suddenly went dark.
The collapse sent a shock wave into the street, pushing others away from the building. Smoke and debris poured from the front door and lower window. The front and back of the house remained standing, but its interior was gone, condensed into a pile.
“We got you,” Shiloh remembered hearing as his fellow firefighters pulled him from the flaming wreckage. Although the right side of his body was covered by rubble, Shiloh was close enough to the front door to see outside.
McMaster, who was near the front door with a fire hose, was struck in the head by pieces of the building. He was pinned on his stomach by burning material. Prying a hand free, he reached out and yelled, “14,” his engine number. Lacayo shouted back.
Although they couldn’t see each other in the darkness, McMaster told Lacayo that they were OK, that they were going to get out.
Hoffman had made it 6 feet inside the house when it came down. Fallen debris covered his legs. Hines, standing at the door, quickly pulled him out while a rescue team removed Shiloh.
Inside, McMaster started pushing himself up when more burning material dropped from the above floors, knocking off his helmet and oxygen mask. Thick, suffocating smoke filled his mouth and nose. Rescue crews heaved McMaster from the smoldering rubble in minutes and took him to Shock Trauma at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he spent four days. He sustained eight burn wounds and spent an additional five days at a burn center.
Once free, Hoffman and Shiloh immediately joined the rescue effort, spraying water at the blaze surrounding those trapped inside. The rescue operation grew to nearly 100 firefighters, who lifted and dug through rubble weighing hundreds of pounds to reach their colleagues in the basement.
It took about two hours to extract Lacayo and then Sadler. They were taken to Shock Trauma, where they were pronounced dead.
Once dawn turned to daylight, a chaotic hour passed after the collapse before people realized Butrim, the lieutenant on Truck 23, also was missing, two firefighters told the state inspectors. Six hours of digging later, they heard an alarm on Butrim’s oxygen tank ring out, signaling it was empty. It would take four additional hours and the help of an excavator to recover Butrim’s body, which had been buried deep.
Applying hard lessons
National fire agencies warn that vacant structures make firefighting even more dangerous. And a vacant building that’s burned in a previous fire, like the one on Stricker Street, poses an increased risk of collapse and should be considered unsafe, according to the fire department’s policy manual, which was updated after the fatal fire to specifically address vacant buildings.
A state compliance officer asked nine fire department employees about the previous lack of department procedure for entering vacant buildings, and about 911 dispatchers failing to inform firefighters of previous fires or damage to properties they respond to, despite dispatchers having software that could provide such data.
Without reliable tracking of unsafe buildings, firefighters worked off their collective memory of past calls. They told MOSH that there is no accountability in the current software system, and no one knew that dispatchers had information about a property’s past fire calls.
Some firefighters said that knowledge would have made them more apprehensive when fighting the Stricker Street fire. They mentioned a program called Code X-ray that labeled hazardous vacant houses with X signs had ended in 2012, in part because of residents’ complaints that the signs made neighborhoods unattractive.
In their report, state compliance officers did not cite the Baltimore City Fire Department for any occupational safety or health violations. Rather, the agency sent a letter to the fire department, Mayor Brandon Scott and the City Council to suggest how the department could reduce the danger of firefighting in a city that has twice as many vacant fires as other areas in the country, according to a Sun data analysis and a 2018 study from the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, the most recently available data.
The department started to make some changes in wake of the firefighters’ deaths.
Chief Niles Ford told a state compliance officer in a meeting that the fire department started to implement several recommendations MOSH offered before its investigation was completed. Among the state’s suggestions, the fire department is working to bring back the program to tag blighted buildings with a sign so firefighters know immediately whether a building is too dangerous to enter. And dispatchers now tell responding crews of hazards at a property.
“Collectively, my team and I will continue to strengthen our commitment to the safety of our members, our community and the residents in Baltimore City, by modifying and enforcing existing policies that focuses on firefighters entering vacant properties,” Ford said in a statement, adding that MOSH’s recommendations are consistent with the department’s current procedures.
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The Baltimore City Council also changed its regulations around in-rem foreclosure to speed up the process for the city to take back privately owned vacant houses from absent owners.
Firefighters typically don’t enter vacant buildings when extinguishing a blaze, but the belief that someone needs to be saved adds urgency to a call.
Since the Stricker Street fire, they’re prohibited from going inside a vacant building without a commander’s approval or a “credible report of people trapped” — which has to be more than a single 911 caller’s assertion. On Jan. 24, only one of the eight 911 callers told dispatchers they believed people were inside the house, according to dispatch records obtained by The Sun.
Hoffman, the firefighter on Engine 36 whose legs were pinned by debris, didn’t realize until later that he had been to the house before.
He had fallen through its unstable floor during a 2015 fire, prompting his own “mayday” rescue call. But that was seven years ago, and he had entered the house from the back. In this neighborhood, with 272 other vacant properties, he didn’t recognize it from the front.
Had Hoffman known he and two other firefighters were injured at the same house in a previous fire, he would have approached the Jan. 24 fire scene differently, he told a state compliance officer.
“I would have ran up and told [Engine] 14 not to go in,” he said.