Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski asked Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to assist the family of a Baltimore fire cadet killed in a training exercise whose death benefit claim was rejected by the Department of Justice.
Writing to Holder a day after The Baltimore Sun reported that a nearly $300,000 claim on behalf of the two children of Racheal M. Wilson was denied because of missing information, Mikulski said that city fire officials did not receive "substantive responses" when they asked the Justice Department for additional information needed for the benefits to be awarded.
"We cannot compound this tragedy by summarily dismissing the request for earned benefits by saying that the information provided is insufficient," wrote Mikulski, who is the head of an appropriations subcommittee that oversees Justice funding.
In an accompanying statement, Mikulski called Wilson's death during a 2007 training exercise a "terrible tragedy."
"Her children have been robbed of their mother - and now they're being robbed of the financial support that she earned and they deserve," Mikulski said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin joined Mikulski's call for a speedy resolution to the matter. "We certainly want to make sure that the cadet's family gets every benefit they are entitled to," said spokeswoman Susan Sullam. "The senator is keenly interested in the well-being of her family."
Wilson was asphyxiated in a West Baltimore rowhouse in which her instructors had set fires as part of a training exercise. A series of investigations found that the exercise violated scores of federal standards. Wilson had been given faulty protective pants and sent into a building where too many fires had been set with an inexperienced instructor who didn't have a radio. When the flames burned out of control, she became trapped in a third-floor window.
Wilson's death at age 29 prompted calls for change within the department. The commander of the training academy was dismissed, and the practice of setting training fires in abandoned homes was immediately halted. The fire chief resigned a few months later.
In May 2007, two months after Wilson's death, the fathers of Wilson's children, Cameron J. Richardson, 14, and Princess J. Davis, 11, applied for the Public Safety Officer Benefit, a lump sum disbursed to the relatives of police or firefighters who die in the line of duty.
A Justice Department employee e-mailed Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack last week to let him know that the claim had been denied because information that had been sought from the fire department several months ago had not been received.
Clack disputed the DOJ claim that his department has not been responsive to request. "I would characterize that comment in the [DOJ] letter as inaccurate," Clack said at a news conference Thursday. "I know that we were very, very responsive to every request from DOJ and from the family's attorney and we continue to be."
Instead, he said, his department has had trouble in recent days getting information from the DOJ. "We are struggling right now to understand what they need," he said. "We've been in contact with several folks at DOJ and nobody has been able to define exactly what they need."
In her letter, Mikulski asked Holder to speed the process of requesting the missing documents. "The Department of Justice cannot delay any further helping resolve this case in a favorable manner," she wrote.