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Crime

Families of Stricker Street fire victims to sue Baltimore, saying the deaths were preventable

The families of the Baltimore firefighters who died battling a fire on Stricker Street earlier this year are planning to sue the city.

Law firm Miller Stern filed a notice with the city Wednesday of its intent to sue, saying the families of the victims have suffered “severe emotional anguish” and have claims exceeding $10 million.

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“The loss of life and injuries that occurred on January 24, 2022 could have and should have been prevented,” the notice states.

Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo were killed when a vacant home on Stricker Street that had been the site of several previous fires partially collapsed as they attempted to battle a blaze from inside.

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Firefighter/EMT John McMaster was seriously injured in what was one of the deadliest fires for fire responders in the city’s history.

Last week, Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford abruptly resigned in conjunction with the release of a damning report that found the city lacked policies on vacant buildings at the time of the fire. A battalion chief on scene was overloaded with duties and missed critical information on busy radio channels, and an early assessment of the fire missed key factors, including the building’s lengthy vacancy, damage from a previous fire and exposure to the elements, the report found.

“This was a vacant property that all firefighters should have been aware of, as it presented a risk to their safety,” the attorneys said. The property “should have been demolished years ago, after the first fire there, but the city of Baltimore and our elected officials chose to allocate the city’s resources elsewhere.”

On Wednesday, members of the City Council grilled interim fire officials about their plans to address issues highlighted in the report and the department’s plan to replace timeworn equipment. Five of 17 truck companies have been without a working fire truck the past two weeks.

The notice of the impending wrongful death lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of Rachel Butrim, Paul Butrim’s widow; Gloria Elena Lacayo; Jose Lacayo, Kenny Lacayo’s father; Lacey Marino, representing Kelsey Sadler’s estate; Jerry Norman, Kelsey Sadler’s father; Brandon Sadler, Kelsey Sadler’s widower; and McMaster, the injured firefighter.

Attorneys for the group held a news conference at the site of the Stricker Street blaze Thursday. Flanked by family members, the lawyers argued that the failure of the city to address its thousands of vacant homes threatens the lives of the city’s firefighters daily.

A Baltimore Sun investigation found the city’s vacant properties burn at twice the national rate, but gaps in record-keeping has limited what firefighters know before going inside.

“While there are issues with the way the fire department operates, that is not the reason why these firefighters died,” said Kevin Stern, an attorney representing the families. “They died because the city and our officials and the state of Maryland failed to act when they should have.”

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The group was also critical of the city’s discontinuation of the Code X-Ray program, which began marking dangerous properties with “X” placards in 2010. The program was disbanded within two years after city elected officials complained the signs were unfairly stigmatizing certain neighborhoods, according to city fire officials.

But to Daniel Miller, one of the attorneys representing the families, the city fire official’s explanation for why the safety program quietly ended is weak.

“That’s an excuse that doesn’t make sense,” Miller said. “There’s no transparency. The only way to get transparency is with litigation.”

The city restarted the Code X-Ray program in October, several months after the Stricker Street fire.

Three trees adorned with flowers stand in a vacant plot at 205 South Stricker Street, where three Baltimore City firefighters died in a burning vacant rowhouse that collapsed. Family members of the firefighters announced at the scene Thursday their intent to sue the city for negligence.

The notice of potential claims includes at least four city agencies and two state authorities. It calls on the city to make systemic changes in response to the fire.

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“This claim is about more than money and requires changes at the highest levels within the City of Baltimore, State of Maryland and our elected officials,” the notice states.


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