Safety lapses in fire death

The Baltimore Sun

Mistakes and safety violations contributed to the death of a Baltimore firefighter as he battled a blaze on Macon Street in October, a draft investigative report says, revealing more problems for a department still struggling after a recruit died in February.

The report, not yet made public but obtained by The Sun, says that firefighters in back of the house trained their hoses on the flames as Allan M. Roberts and others went in through the front. The fire turned water from the hoses into steam, increasing the heat inside the building.

"The practice of using hose lines in an attempt to extinguish a fire from the exterior while other members are making an interior attack is unacceptable and dangerous," the report concludes. Roberts, struggling to get air flowing from his oxygen tank, apparently pulled his mask off, collapsed unconscious and later died, the report says.

His death, the first in the line of duty for a city firefighter in 11 years, was followed four months later by the death of the recruit, Racheal M. Wilson. She was mortally injured in a live fire training exercise riddled with safety violations that prompted the firing of the training academy chief and a shake-up in command.

The fire in which Roberts died broke out Oct. 10 and was first reported about 2:20 p.m. inside a Southeast Baltimore rowhouse at 514 S. Macon St. in Greektown. Several people told 911 operators that people were trapped inside, though that report turned out to be wrong.

The Fire Department report lays out a chaotic scene commanded by Battalion Chief Reese Wingate III, a 34-year veteran. Firefighters struggled to get to the second floor because of the reports of trapped people, even as other firefighters began to pour water on the flames from outside.

Firefighters conduct exterior attacks on fires only after they determine the building has been lost. In this case, the report says, firefighters in front of the rowhouse, where no flames were visible, didn't communicate with firefighters in back, where flames were shooting out windows.

"Members in the rear stated in their interviews that they assumed that the entire building was involved in fire because of the conditions in the rear," the report says. "This led them to believe that no one would be making an interior attack."

Inside, where Roberts was helping to pull a hose, the heat became so great that the firefighters had to retreat, and they fell onto each other just as they reached the front door. Roberts was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and rookies Brandon Mattox and James Butler suffered second-degree burns on their arms.

A Fire Department spokesman, Rick Binetti, declined to comment on the specifics of the report, but he said that the mistakes did not represent a broader problem. He said the deaths of Roberts and Wilson "don't reflect what the Baltimore City Fire Department is. We have thousands of fire grounds a year. This death of a firefighter is a rare occurrence."

He said the final report would be released in the next six weeks.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, focused on new safety initiatives at the fire department. "The culture, including the training, is changing," he said.

McCarthy said the mayor has reviewed the preliminary report and is concerned with "eerily similar problems" indicated by the two deaths. In both fires, reports noted a lack of communication between firefighters. Also, a rescue team was not present at either fire. The department said that was a critical failure in the death of Wilson but is not considered a significant contributor to Roberts' death.

Leaders from the department's two fire unions said the owner or occupants of the house should be blamed. The report says that the fire was caused by an electrical fault in a hot water heater in the basement and that the Macon Street house was receiving electricity through an illegal hookup.

Both union leaders acknowledged that mistakes were made at the fire, but they played down any parallels between the deaths of Roberts and Wilson.

"There were some problems, absolutely," said Rick Schluderberg, president of the union that represents firefighters. "The fire ground is not a training exercise."

Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the Fire Officers Union, said, "Allan Roberts was an accident; we have a dangerous job."

The report lays out a detailed account of how the fire on Macon Street was fought.

Firefighters from two engine companies pulled hoses through the front door. Roberts, a 19-year veteran, grasped the nozzle of one hose, with help from Mattox and Butler.

Because of heavy smoke and "extreme heat," the three crawled on their hands and knees, struggling to get up the stairs because they believed there was someone trapped.

Meanwhile, firefighters from other companies saw fire coming out the windows in the back, Bob Sledgeski, a firefighter and union officer said in an interview yesterday: "They were looking at all the fire in the rear, and they were thinking there is no way anyway anyone is in that house."

The firefighters in the back sprayed water on the rear of the building, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Roberts and the other firefighters reached the second floor. Roberts told Mattox that he didn't see any fire, but the air became increasingly hot, according to the report. Lt. Michael Hollingshead, who was downstairs, yelled into his radio that it was "getting real hot" and then hurried out of the house, according to the report. The three firefighters upstairs retreated.

Roberts made his way down the stairs and then screamed in pain, ran past Mattox and then into Butler near the front door. Both fell against the door, blocking it shut.

Mattox then fell on top of Butler and Roberts. Roberts became "motionless and unconscious," the report says.

Outside the front, firefighters struggled to force open the door, and they removed Mattox and Butler. But rescuers had to take the hinges off the front door to get to Roberts. They found an air bottle on his back but noticed that his mask had been ripped from his face. The report notes that Roberts was not wearing a protective hood under his helmet when he entered the building.

The report explains scenarios that could have led up to Roberts' decision to take off his air mask, a surprising move for a veteran firefighter.

It is possible, according to the report, that Roberts accidentally turned off the valve that allowed air to flow from the bottle to his mask. In this scenario, the report says Roberts never fully turned on the air "in his haste" to enter the building and put out the fire.

Roberts became breathless from the heavy work of pulling a hose into a burning house, and possibly removed his gloves to get a good grip on the air valve. But, rather than opening the valve, he might have accidentally shut it off, according to the report.

Sledgeski said that what really happened inside the house might never be learned. "There is no one on this earth who knows what happened," he said. "When a dispatch comes out that has a report of people trapped, our members will do as much as they to protect the citizens, oftentimes at their own risk."

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