'I had to listen to her screams'

The Baltimore Sun

The supervisor of the Baltimore fire recruit killed in a training exercise rejected yesterday the findings of an independent report that concluded he had abandoned the cadet inside a burning rowhouse, saying his wrists are scarred from his efforts to pull her out of a window.

"I gave everything I could to save her that day," said Emergency Vehicle Driver Ryan Wenger, in his first public account of how Racheal M. Wilson died Feb. 9 inside a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road.

"I think about it nonstop," he said, recalling efforts to pull Wilson through a third-floor window. "All I have to do is look at myself to remember. ... I had to listen to her screams."

Wenger, whose father is a battalion chief in the city department, had been assigned to watch over Wilson and others on her crew as they battled multiple fires set by instructors for the exercise.

The report, commissioned by the city's mayor and due to be released publicly today, said Wenger was not qualified to instruct others, went into the burning house without safety equipment and a radio, followed a dangerous order to take the recruits above a fire and left ahead of his recruits.

Wenger, 32, who was accompanied by two fire union leaders, said the report unfairly damaged his reputation and blemished his 10-year career. But he conceded that he was assigned jobs that he does not typically perform. Of his role as an instructor, he said he was "helping out for the day."

Union officials criticized the report for blaming rank-and-file firefighters while saying it exonerated Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is running for the council presidency, called for Goodwin to resign. "At some point he has to be held accountable," Harris said.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has said that her level of confidence in the chief is "very questionable" but she has also expressed disappointment that firefighters at the deadly burn did not speak out when they saw safety violations.

The report found 50 violations of the national safety standard governing how live-burns should be conducted, criticized the department's culture as too rigid and said firefighters should be empowered to question orders when safety is an issue.

Among the findings, the report faulted instructors for setting more than the one fire permitted in such circumstances, for not issuing radios to all the recruits and for not having an adequate backup water supply.

In the interview, Wenger defended his decisions, saying he has been trained to put trust in his co-workers and his superior officers, and he did not want to question those in command.

"In the Fire Department they charge you with insubordination, which is a suspending offense," said Wenger. But he did not dispute concerns raised about his instructing credentials. He had never taught anyone at the academy, and he was asked at the last minute to fill in for an instructor who was burned in another exercise the day before.

"I don't have any certification; I was never asked if I did," Wenger said.

He said that in the exercise in which Wilson died, he was assigned tasks he does not do when he is on the job, such as work with hoses and water supplies.

Wenger is assigned to a truck company, whose members knock in doors and cut holes for ventilation. Firefighters assigned to engine companies are in charge of water supplies, and that was his role during the Feb. 9 exercise.

Four recruits were assigned to him shortly before the drill. "I had no history with the people who I was assigned to," he said.

Lt. Joseph Crest, the instructor in charge of the exercise, told Wenger to expect fires on the second and third floors of the building. But there also was a fire at the rear on the first floor. Crest is one of three commanders who were fired after Wilson's death.

That day Crest told Wenger to take the crew past the second-floor fire and extinguish the one on the top floor, according to the report. A crew behind was to put out the fire on the second floor.

About that order, Wenger said: "It struck me as odd at first. The rule is that you do not go above a fire. Heat rises."

Wenger said he dismissed his concerns in part because he knew and trusted the firefighter who was going to be coming up directly behind him. Also, Wenger said, "I trusted the fire academy, I'm just here helping out for one day."

Wenger was not given a radio, nor did he ask for one. "Look at what the Fire Department is," he said. "The Fire Department has a command structure, I've never had a problem with insubordination in the past, and this wasn't going to be the first."

The team entered the building, and Wenger said he did not notice the first-floor fire.

When he got to the second floor he was confronted with more fire than he expected: "The fire was starting to come after us, it was starting to come down the hallway. The fire kept getting closer and closer to us."

Wenger said he disobeyed an order from Crest to bypass the fire on the second floor and proceed directly to the level above. He said he told Wilson to spray water on that fire.

But she had trouble with the hose, and after several attempts Wenger took it from her and sprayed down the fire himself. "I started to worry about her capabilities," he said.

The two other recruits in the crew were tasked with freeing the hose line on the lower levels and were not with Wenger when he got to the third floor. There he began to feel hot. "I got to my knees," he said in the interview. "I felt like there was heat coming from everywhere."

He had never been on the third floor of the building and had no idea where the windows or escape routes would be. He noticed light streaming though the smoke and put his head out a window to see whether he could determine where all the heat was coming from.

Then another recruit on his team, Stephanie Cisneros, hollered to him. In her interview with investigators, she said that she saw flames coming off her gear.

Wenger said he was relieved that he wasn't "the only one" feeling heat. He agreed they should leave and instantly decided the window was the best way out.

"They teach you to be in control of a rescue situation," Wenger said. "I had no means of calling for help. It was me with the recruits, knowing that in my head I had to get out so I could help them safely."

He pulled through and then grabbed Cisneros. Once she was through, Wilson appeared in the window, yelling. Wenger reached in to get her but he could not pull her to safety.

"I gave 110 percent to help her.," he said. "I looked up the definition of 'abandonment.' It is not me."

Eventually his friend, Emergency Vehicle Driver Michael Hiebler, came up to the third floor and helped from the inside to push Wilson out. But it was too late.

Wenger was taken to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's burn unit. He had second-degree burns on his wrists, arms, fingers and the back of his neck. It was there that he learned Wilson had died.

"I never went in this thinking anything bad would happen," Wenger said. "I put my confidence and my faith in them that everything would be OK."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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