Advertisement
News

High window, trapped boot

For the cadets of Academy Class 19, the late Friday morning training exercise was a chance to escape their classrooms and battle a fire in a real building. They gathered at 145 S. Calverton Road, a run-down rowhouse long abandoned by its owner, boarded up and claimed by the city.

Instructors ignited seven fires on wooden pallets scattered inside the home, in hallways, bedrooms and closets. Fire Apprentice Racheal M. Wilson, a 29-year-old mother of two who had begun training in November, grabbed a hose and led other cadets inside.

Advertisement

It was supposed to be a routine exercise.

But a 27-page report released yesterday by the Fire Department details a training exercise that seemed designed to put recruits in danger.

Advertisement

No instructors were inside the burning building to help the recruits. No radios were available to use if they needed to call for help. More than one fire was set, in violation of national standards that limit training blazes to one.

The rowhouse itself, the report says, was never supposed to be used in a live burn. Two weeks earlier, recruits had used the dwelling to practice pulling down walls and ceilings - actions that, the report says, "enabled the fire to spread."

It appeared Wilson had little chance from the time she walked through the front door until she became trapped in a window on the third floor, where she succumbed to smoke and flames.

Among the last words anyone heard from Wilson, the report says, were her warnings to two classmates to get out of the burning building.

Firefighters who returned to the rowhouse more than a week later found her boot frozen in the charred debris, near the window from which she had tried to escape. Investigators say they believe that one of Wilson's feet broke through a weakened floor and got stuck.

This week, two fire officers were suspended without pay and the head of the training academy, Kenneth Hyde Sr., was fired.

Yesterday, Hyde's lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, said his client is "extremely disappointed" and feels he is being made a scapegoat. "He feels as if it was not based on a thorough investigation," O'Neill said. "What is shocking is that he never had the opportunity ... to be heard. I think he is being made a scapegoat for lapses in safety that had nothing to do with his overall job and responsibilities."

The report offers the first detailed chronology of the fatal training exercise Feb. 9 that involved more than 45 firefighters:

Advertisement

Wilson was assigned to Engine 1, which was led by instructor Ryan Wenger and included recruits Stephanie Cisneros, Angel Perez and Benjamin Lichtenberg.

The four entered the rowhouse about 11:35 a.m., Wilson in the lead and holding a hose. As they rushed up to the second floor to put out a fire at the top of the stairs, the hose Wilson was carrying was charged with water. The force knocked her backward.

Wenger grabbed the hose and extinguished the fire in the hallway, while Cisneros helped Wilson to her feet.

Another fire burned on the second floor, but the crew of Engine 1 did not put it out. Instead, they were instructed to climb to the third floor, leaving the fire to burn underneath them - which firefighters are trained never to do, except in extreme rescue situations.

It remains unclear who instructed the team to ascend above the second-floor fire.

Holding the hose again, Wilson reached the top of the stairs leading to the third floor and began pouring water on the fire. Wenger, Perez and Lichtenberg were standing behind her.

Advertisement

By then, the fire from the second floor had reached the stairwell, burning Cisneros on her left leg as she climbed the steps. Cisneros told Wenger she needed to get out of the building.

Wenger jumped out the window in the stairwell and pulled Cisneros out after him, onto the roof of a second-floor overhang. He looked into the building to check on Wilson, and she appeared at the window, but without the hose.

Wilson tried to climb out, but couldn't. The stairwell's windowsill, investigators would later determine, was unusually high - nearly 3 1/2 feet off the floor.

Without a radio, Wenger had to yell for help to firefighters on the third-floor roof. Wilson slipped off the windowsill and back into the burning building. Moments later, she reappeared at the window, her face mask off and her helmet dangling off her head by a strap.

She tried to climb through the window but her foot might have come entangled in wire mesh. She was stuck, half her body hanging outside, half inside.

A recruit on the roof picked up a radio and called for help: "We have a trapped firefighter and a hurt firefighter and we can't get her out. We need help up here now."

Advertisement

Wenger saw that Wilson's face had started to burn. Wenger and the three who rushed to help him - instructor John Lotz and recruits Kevin Larkins and Brandon Thibeault - again tried to pull Wilson out. By then, she was barely conscious.

While still inside, Lichtenberg and Perez were able to grab the unused hose line and begin throwing water on the fire in the stairwell. Another instructor, Michael Hiebler, and recruit Wayne Robinson attacked the fire on the third floor with a separate hose.

Hiebler managed to get behind Wilson and lift her legs, while others finally pulled her out the window. As she lay on the second-floor roof, Wilson's rescuers urgently began to try to resuscitate her.

At 11:51 p.m., someone yelled into the radio: "We have a down firefighter on Charlie side. On the second-floor roof. Repeat. Down firefighter. Second floor. Charlie side roof."

Moments later, Wilson was transferred to a backboard, in a special rescue basket that was hooked into an aerial ladder, which lowered her to the ground.

Two paramedics worked to save Wilson's life, as the remaining firefighters began to clear the scene.

Advertisement

"Command to all units," someone said over the radio. "Shut down the hand lines. Evacuate the building."

Thirty seconds later, at noon, the ambulance left for Maryland Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore.

After extensive efforts by the trauma team, Dr. Thomas M. Scalea - the lead surgeon known for personally attending to the injuries of police officers and firefighters - pronounced Wilson dead.

It was 12:50 p.m.

Within minutes of her death, Fire Department officials had begun preparing for a complicated investigation. Members of the Fire Investigations Bureau requested investigators from the city Police Department's arson unit at 12:55 p.m. At 1:13 p.m., the fire marshal requested investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Minutes later, fire investigators decided to interview everyone at the scene and videotape the interviews. The interviews lasted for more than seven hours.

Advertisement

Yesterday, backtracking from previous remarks, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said the department would no longer carry out live-fire training exercises on city rowhouses.

The Howard County Fire Department will conduct an independent review of the city agency's training practices. And the final results of the investigation into the fatality will be turned over to federal authorities for further review.

There are still many unanswered questions. Goodwin was unable to say why Wilson and other recruits were sent into a burning building without radios, one of the most essential safety devices.

"We should've done better and we will do better," Goodwin said. "When things go right, it's 100 percent the credit of the men and women that do the job. When things go wrong, it's my responsibility to fix it."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Advertisement

Sun editorial assistant Holton Brown contributed to this article.

RADIO EXCERPTS

Excerpts from fire radio communications during fatal training fire:

11:49.58

- "Repeat company calling for help. Repeat!"

11:50.03

Advertisement

- "(Garbled, apparently female voice) This is (garbled) ... We have a trapped firefighter and a hurt firefighter and we can't get her out. We need help up here now."

11:40.14

- "Coming. Coming."

11:50.20

- "Burning through the roof up here."

11:50.24

Advertisement

- "On the roof?"

11:50.27

- "Fire coming through the roof. We have no line."

11:51.28

- "Medic 21 come to the rear."

11:51.33

Advertisement

- "Standby. OK. Calm down. Calm down."

11:51.49

- "T2 to Command. We have a down firefighter ... on the second-floor roof. Repeat. Down firefighter. Second floor."

[Source: Baltimore Fire Department]


Advertisement