Lawsuit Filed In Wilmington Firefighter Deaths, Mayor Says City Will Aggressively Defend Case

Tom Neuberger, one of the attorneys representing the families of the fallen firefighters and surviving firefighters from the September 24, 2016 Canby Park fire issued a statement regarding the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of his clients.

“Today we seek justice for the needless and unnecessary deaths of three heroic firefighters. Seconds count in stopping fires. But these heroes died because of an official City policy of closing fire engines and keeping the closest water away from the scene of a fire.

So eight children, the estates of their three firefighter parents, one widow, and three firefighter survivors today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit arising from the killer September 24, 2016 residential fire. They seek compensatory and punitive damages and a jury trial against former Wilmington Mayors, the City and others.

After an exhaustive investigation, the 75 page Complaint charges that starting in 2009 “rolling bypass” became official City policy whereby: (1) a fire engine with its water and hoses was closed every shift, leaving a gapping hole in fire coverage in the City; (2) this removed 500- 750 gallons of immediately available water from the fire scene; and (3) another fire engine from farther away had to travel a longer distance before any water could be put on the fire.

To make matters worse, it also is alleged, as another official policy, that in 2013 the City deliberately understaffed the Wilmington Fire Department leaving many fully funded firefighter positions vacant even though filling these positions would have prevented mothballing fire engines. Finally, in late 2015, defendants doubled the number of firefighters working in 9-5 desk jobs, removing 16 more firefighters from front line positions and stripping fire operations of even more firefighters needed to keep fire engines open.

Plaintiffs will prove that for each minute a fire is allowed to burn its intensity increases many times. Seconds and minutes matter. Delaying the arrival of water to the scene of a fire can mean the difference between life and death for firefighters and civilians. “You put water on a fire, and the problems go away,” say firefighters.

But closing a water carrying engine on September 24th removed the ability to quickly put over 5,200 gallons of water on the heart of that fire located in the rear basement of this home. Instead, for over 18 minutes no water was applied to the heart of this fire, causing a partial structural collapse, killing Lt. Christopher Leach at the scene, Sr. Firefighter Jerry Fickes shortly thereafter, and Sr. Firefighter Ardythe Hope who died several months later from thermal burns, as well as gravely injuring three others.

The Complaint charges that this calamity is due to the dereliction of duty by these two Mayors, and their appointees, who the lawsuit seeks to hold accountable. Stated co-counsel Thomas Neuberger, “The chickens have come home to roost for the City of Wilmington. All this would have been prevented if the city had let the firefighters do their jobs and get water to the fire scene as quickly as possible. Why in the world would you ever let a small fire grow into a large
fire?”

Neuberger added, “Blood is on the hands of the former mayors who despite repeated warnings knowingly caused the deaths of three firefighting heroes who gave their lives rushing into a burning building seeking to rescue civilians believed trapped in the inferno. They were warned repeatedly that deaths would follow, but with a cold heart they continued their shocking policies.”

Separate money awards are sought for the eight children, Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes’ widow Laura, and the three estates, as well as for the survivors: Firefighter Brad Speakman and Senior Firefighter Terry Tate who were forced into early retirement, and Lt. John Cawthray who is still on duty. The estates and survivors seek damages for their physical, emotional and mental injuries: such as terror, asphyxiation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and flashbacks. Additional economic losses include: lost wages; benefits; pension and retirement benefits; and decreased earning capacity.

The Complaint charges that the Fourteenth Amendment Constitutional right to substantive due process was denied plaintiffs in a way that shocks the judicial conscience over a seven year period where defendants affirmatively created and then hid this State created danger from Wilmington City Council.”

Mayor’s Response

In response, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki today issued the following statement upon learning of the lawsuit filed in relation to the suspected arson fire that claimed the lives of three firefighters and injured others in September of 2016.

“While we continue to be very sad about the loss of our firefighters and the way this incident has affected the entire WFD family, this lawsuit is not an appropriate response to this tragedy. There are no reasons at all for the City to feel guilt or shame. A grand jury has charged an individual with arson and multiple counts of murder in connection with this fire, and that person is awaiting trial. Yet, despite the pending criminal prosecution, plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed a civil complaint seeking money damages from the City affecting all the citizens of Wilmington, but leaving unnamed the individual accused of intentionally setting the fire.

The City of Wilmington’s government and its citizens continue to meet any and all obligations to the victims of this tragic act of arson through compensation and benefit programs that are available to City employees. In addition to the amounts of money that the affected firefighters and their families may have received from the State and other sources, the City has paid or anticipates paying over $11 million to the affected firefighters and their families in medical costs and related benefits associated with his incident.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed this lawsuit in an attempt to get even more money from the City. Perhaps they believe, or have convinced their clients, that this lawsuit is a way to gain additional compensation through a quick cash settlement. If so, they are profoundly mistaken. I assure you that Wilmington will aggressively defend this case.

It is easy to file a lawsuit, and a complaint is just a list of allegations written by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Those allegations are not facts, and they are not evidence. As the plaintiffs and their lawyers will learn, facts matter. The actual facts in this case differ sharply from the narrative contained in the complaint.

The complaint asserts that the rolling by-pass and staffing decisions were contributory factors in this tragedy. The City sharply disagrees. An individual has been charged criminally with intentionally setting this fire. Again, facts matter, and the facts will demonstrate the disturbing nature of this lawsuit.”

Note: The former Wilmington Mayor’s names have been removed from Neuberger’s statement. If the two former mayors would like to issue a statement we will update this post to include those statements.

 


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First State Update's Delaware editorial team covers New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County breaking news, political news, and general news stories. We bring the reader the latest news from the Wilmington, Newark, Dover, Rehoboth Beach and all point in between. If you have news to share, email us at desk@firststateupdate.com.

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