Fatal fire exercise can't be sugarcoated

Usually, there turns out to be some sort of explanation. As more information becomes available, something that initially seemed like an inexplicable, unmitigated disaster often turns out to have at least a partial explanation, or a mitigating circumstance or two.

Not this time.


No, the more information you get about the Baltimore Fire Department training exercise gone horribly and fatally wrong, the more you have to think, this time, it really was as bad as it seemed on Day One.

Today, the city will release the results of its investigation into how fire recruit Racheal Wilson, sent with her academy classmates Feb. 9 to extinguish the multiple fires purposely set in a rowhouse for training purposes, instead died of asphyxiation and burns.


I doubt I'm rushing to any judgments here when I tell you it's not going to exonerate the department for her death.

When a mayor, particularly one running hard to keep her job, doesn't even bother to sugarcoat the bad news, when she doesn't urge patience until all the information is in, when she flat-out says, as Sheila Dixon did yesterday, that "there are no excuses for what happened that day," you can consider it the City Hall equivalent of the Animal Kingdom act in which a beast rolls over and exposes its belly.

Dixon announced that she had fired the head of the Fire Department's training academy, Kenneth Hyde Sr., during an extraordinarily blunt news conference yesterday. She and Fire Chief William J. Goodwin declined to release the report yesterday, citing respect for Wilson, who was being buried in her girlhood home of Denver at the same time, but left little doubt about what it would say.

"The report is there. It's all in black and white," Goodwin said. "It's really not favorable."

Barrel-chested and square-jawed, Goodwin looks like the idealized firefighter in the coloring book that they gave you as a child - the one who is rescuing a cat stuck up in a tree, on the page facing the one with the friendly police officer patrolling Main Street. Goodwin may have nearly lost his own job over the incident, but the third-generation firefighter seems to have kept Dixon's trust over the course of the investigation.

Goodwin certainly made a case for his credibility when he acknowledged yesterday that, as a former head of the training academy, he would never have conducted the exercise as Hyde did, citing the fact that he received no advance notice of the burn and that the house that was torched was not approved for that use.

The inquiry doesn't end with today's report. Dixon has ordered a second and independent review of the Fire Department. It will be led by a Howard County fire official, reporting directly to her, and Dixon promised a completely transparent investigation. I must confess, the cynic in me had to recall her more opaque stance on the investigation into her own actions when, as City Council president, she voted on contracts that went to a company that employed her sister.

Still, since becoming mayor, completing Martin O'Malley's term and running against a crowded field for her own term, she has pledged transparency - along with her "cleaner, greener" refrain, it's part of the overall vision she's presented for her administration. Whether she really meant it or not - sorry, there's that cynicism again - Wilson's horrifying death pretty much has forced her to live up to it.


Yesterday's news conference was a start. Rather than let the report to be released today speak for itself, or refrain from coming to any conclusions until the independent review comes in - she put a March 30 deadline on that - Dixon cast a broad net of blame over the department. The bulk of it fell on Hyde, who increasingly seems to be emerging as some sort of rogue element, remaining as he does under investigation for some Animal House escapades at the volunteer fire department that he runs in Riviera Beach.

But Dixon also threw the entire department's "culture" out there for scrutiny, questioning why none of the 19 firefighters participating in the training of the recruits that day spoke up as the burn went bad.

"If they had," Dixon said, "maybe Racheal Wilson would be alive today."

Goodwin noted the role of rank in firefighting culture - and indeed, when your job is to dash into burning buildings to save lives, the idea of stopping for a group discussion rather than simply following the orders of a superior is pretty ludicrous.

Of course, you have to be able to trust that superior, and the training that you've received before joining the ranks. The lessons Wilson's surviving academy classmates learned on Feb. 9 have turned out to be quite different than intended.