Amid loss comes a search for answers

Sun reporter

As relatives and friends mourned the death of a devoted mother who loved to sing, officials revealed details yesterday about the last minutes of a city Fire Department recruit who died during a training exercise Friday.

Another recruit and a seasoned firefighter were burned when they lifted Racheal Wilson through a third-floor window after she collapsed in a burning rowhouse, fire officials said. The 29-year-old mother of two died shortly after being taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.Baltimore City Fire Department officials interviewed recruits and instructors yesterday as they tried to learn more about the circumstances of Wilson's death. "Every aspect, every radio transmission will be looked at," Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said at a news conference.

The cause of death is unknown. Wilson did not have any health problems since she began training in November, Goodwin said.

Goodwin, Mayor Sheila Dixon and a host of firefighters visited her family yesterday to offer condolences and assistance.

Priscilla Neal, the mother of Wilson's boyfriend, was caring for her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. Neal held up a statuette with a glass angel protecting a small child in a firefighter uniform.

"She always said she had a guardian angel," a tearful Neal said.

Larry Davis, Wilson's boyfriend of a decade, said firefighters told him that Wilson suffered before she died. "Why did my baby have to hurt?" he said, crying, as he moved some of his children's things into his mother's car. "She was my baby."

The two had recently bought a car and were planning to buy a house, he said.

Born in 1977 in Louisiana, Wilson moved to Denver when she was 15, graduated from high school and worked for Frito-Lay and the U.S. Postal Service. She relocated with her boyfriend's family to Baltimore about 10 years ago.

Family members said Wilson, who had recently joined a Pentecostal church, loved to cook spicy gumbo and would help clean the homes of older relatives.

"She had so many dreams and ambitions cut short," said Shareese Kenard, one of Wilson's closest friends.

Kenard said Wilson "had a beautiful voice," and she always teased her about trying out for American Idol.

Wilson had her children's names tattooed on her biceps: Cameron, her son, on the left arm, and Princess, her daughter, on the right.

For most of her life, she dreamed of being a firefighter or police officer, and she applied several times before she was admitted to a Fire Department training class last year, her family said.

She would have graduated from the academy next month.

On Friday, she was one of 24 recruits participating in a training exercise in the vacant house in Southwest Baltimore.

At least one fire had been set on the second floor of the house. Several instructors were present, as were other firefighters who were assisting or observing the exercise, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Fire Department.

Wilson, along with two other trainees and an experienced firefighter, were responsible for knocking holes in the third floor of the house to create ventilation that would allow heat and smoke to escape, Cartwright said.

When Wilson collapsed about noon, another trainee and the firefighter lifted her out the window, Cartwright said. The firefighter suffered burns to his right arm, wrist and ear, and the trainee suffered burns to her leg. Both were treated at a hospital and released.

Goodwin said the firefighters followed safety protocols. A safety official was present to look after recruits, a second fire hose was manned by an instructor and several experienced firefighters were on hand who could aid in the rescue of any cadets who ran into difficulty during the exercise.

Investigators from the Baltimore Police Department's arson detection squad, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health are assisting the Fire Department with the probe.

Goodwin defended the department's training program, adding that no city recruit had ever died before during practice operations.

"We have to always balance our training to get it as close to real as possible," he said. "The first night that they work, they'll be part of a crew of four that could come to any of your houses."

Rick Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore City Firefighters Local 734, said the union was focused on "paying respects to a fallen officer" and helping Wilson's parents fly in from Denver.

"The fire academy staff has been assigned a monstrous task to train these young men and women to join a very dangerous occupation," he said. "That training is not without risk."

Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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