The family of a fire cadet who died of asphyxiation and burns during a training exercise that went wrong is suing the city for $35 million for her suffering and death.
The suit, brought by the mother and two school-age children of Racheal M. Wilson, contends that the training exercise, which violated dozens of federal standards, "was part of an official culture of ignorance and indifference to safety" within the Fire Department that "shocks the conscience."
"She's a trainee, a firefighter in training, and she's going to rely on the people who are training her, who have 20 and 30 years of experience, to keep her safe," said attorney Paul D. Bekman, who represents Wilson's mother. "And unfortunately, they did everything wrong."
Wilson, 29, had been with the department for three months when she was sent into a burning West Baltimore rowhouse in February 2007. The house was "wholly inappropriate" for a live-burn exercise and "grossly unsafe" conditions were "knowingly and purposefully" created by fire instructors, the suit alleges.
The suit, which draws from an independent investigation of the training exercise, depicts a nightmarish and chaotic situation in which instructors set seven fires — although national guidelines permit just one — and did not properly prepare the cadets or draw up an evacuation plan. Wilson was given an inadequate breathing apparatus and clothing that failed to protect her from the extreme heat, the suit contends.
Wilson and her team members were sent to the third floor of the house, where they realized their lives were in danger. Several scrambled out a window, but Wilson was unable to make it. An experienced firefighter tried to pull her to safety but twice lost his grip. She was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where she was pronounced dead.
The suit names three training academy supervisors, Kenneth B. Hyde Sr., Joseph Crest and Barry Broyles, all of whom were dismissed from the department after Wilson's death, although Broyles was later reinstated.
Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. announced his resignation in November 2007, nine months after the fatal exercise. Goodwin, who was out of the country on the day of the incident, came under criticism after Wilson's death. He retired after 33 years with the department.
City Solicitor George Nilson described the incident as a "terrible, terrible accident" that leaders in City Hall and the Fire Department have learned from. But he said the actions do not meet the standard of "extraordinary negligence" claimed in the suit.
The city and Bekman failed to reach a settlement out of court after about a year of discussions, Nilson said. The suit will likely not come to trial for at least a year.