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CLAIM DENIED IN DEATH OF CADET

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The U.S. Justice Department has denied a $295,194 benefit to the children of Racheal Wilson, the Baltimore fire cadet who died in a widely criticized training exercise in 2007, saying that the city's Fire Department failed to submit paperwork establishing her eligibility for the funds.

"The department and the city not only failed Racheal when she was alive, but they've failed her when she was dead," said Bob Sledgeski, the head of the firefighter's union. "It was always expected that the Fire Department would take care of your family if something bad happened. ... It is a death of that tradition."

Fire Department officials are scrambling to determine what information they can provide to support an appeal that has been filed by the family, but the decision is a slap in the face to Wilson's survivors and another psychological blow to a city agency facing deep budget cuts and still struggling to find its footing after the cadet's death.

Mayor Sheila Dixon suggested that any culpability on the part of the city be attached to the administration of the previous fire chief, saying that the failures of that era are "coming back to a haunt us."

She said she will seek help from the state's congressional delegation in appealing the Justice Department decision. "This is why you have different levels of representation," Dixon said.

Ambrose Slaughter, Wilson's stepfather, declined to comment. The fathers of Wilson's children applied in May 2007 for the federal funds, known as the Public Safety Officer Benefit, given in a lump sum to survivors of police or firefighters who die in the line of duty.

Wilson died of asphyxiation after becoming trapped in a West Baltimore rowhouse that her instructors set on fire as part of a training exercise. The exercise violated dozens of federal safety standards and roused calls for sweeping change within the department, which immediately discontinued its practice of setting fire to city rowhouses so that cadets could gain experience in extinguishing such blazes.

It was the first public safety crisis that Dixon handled upon taking office, and she moved quickly - dismissing the commander in charge of the training academy and ordering an investigation. The report was released publicly. Within months of Wilson's death, the fire chief stepped down and the mayor appointed a new one.

A series of investigations into the death revealed that Wilson had been issued tattered protective gear, her instructor lacked a radio to call for help, and training officers set at least seven fires instead of the single blaze that national safety regulations permit for such exercises.

The death, and the missteps that led to it, have been studied by fire departments across the country. At the time, Wilson's name became a rallying cry: Then-Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. pledged at her funeral that her memory would be "our driving force to excellence."

Last week, a Justice Department official e-mailed Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack to inform him of the agency's decision to deny the family's claim. The reason: "Information was sought several months ago from the City of Baltimore Fire Department. ... [N]othing responsive has been received."

The claim lacked Fire Department information outlining the "extent and nature" of Wilson's fire training and the "authority and responsibility" she had to respond to fires, according to the Justice Department report.

Questions to the Fire Department were referred to Chief Joseph V. Brocato, who became the head of the fire academy two weeks after Wilson was killed and was charged with reforming the academy.

"This is a priority for me both personally and professionally," Brocato said in an interview. "I feel a sense of obligation, not as a training chief but as a firefighter. We need to do everything we can to be sure her family has everything they need."

Brocato said he was unaware of any Justice Department requests for further information until last week when the benefit was denied.

He noted that the Fire Department has undergone significant administrative changes since the claim was filed in 2007, and that he does not have a copy because it was filed by the fathers of Wilson's children. Brocato said he has made a series of calls to the Justice Department, left messages for officials and tracked down a former Fire Department attorney to brief him on the application.

"The first thing I did was call [the Justice Department] and ask, 'What is it you didn't get?' " Brocato said. He said he has not heard back from the federal agency.

Brocato said he might have to reconstruct some of Wilson's training files with information from other agencies because the department no longer has the original records. They were missing when he arrived at the academy, Brocato said.

The Justice Department's report acknowledges that Wilson was a fire cadet employed by the city Fire Department and that she died while attempting to extinguish a fire set in a Baltimore rowhouse - a statement that would seem to imply that she had the legal authority to suppress fires.

The Justice Department declined to tell The Baltimore Sun what other information it needed or why it had denied the claim. Sarah Matz, a Justice spokeswoman, stressed that the denial "is not a final determination."

The Public Safety Officer Benefit was established in 1976, and any payment would go to Wilson's two children, Princess J. Davis, 11, and Cameron J. Richardson, 14.

In the past year, the federal agency has received 334 claims, of which 14 were denied, Matz said. In general, Matz said, a job description or a signed statement detailing the role of recruits could be enough to establish that a firefighter has authority to suppress a blaze. But she said, "because every PSOB claim is unique, other clarifying documentation may be requested to establish authority."

There is no minimum amount of training required to be eligible, Matz said.

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