HAVERHILL — City officials and the firefighters union strongly disagree on whether staffing cuts to the rescue truck played a role in the death of an elderly woman in yesterday morning's Washington Street house fire.
But the tragedy has led to a rare agreement between Mayor James Fiorentini and the union. Firefighters said the agreement has secured the safety of city residents for at least one night.
Two firefighters volunteered to staff the rescue truck last night without pay, and Mayor James Fiorentini said he planned to talk with union President Greg Roberts today to try to devise a plan to restore the rescue truck to full staffing as soon as possible.
The mayor cut the rescue truck crew from three firefighters to one last week to cover a $200,000 deficit in the Fire Department's overtime budget.
The agreement followed a long day of high drama and accusations that began in the early-morning hours when a leader in the firefighters union said Fiorentini "should be charged with murder for taking the rescue truck out of service over a dispute with the union."
Later at a 2 p.m. press conference in front of the burned-out triple-decker at 477 Washington St., Roberts stood with two dozen Haverhill firefighters and the leaders of the state fire union and blamed Fiorentini for the death of Phyllis Lamot, 84.
"Ten days ago there would have been a rescue crew going in and searching that building for that woman," said Edward Kelly, a Boston firefighter and president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, who was brought in by the local union to help set up the press conference. "Because of the reductions in manpower the mayor instituted, there was no rescue team to go in and search for her. We feel very strongly that woman would have survived if the cuts to the rescue truck had not been made."
According to the dispatch log, the rescue truck was the second fire vehicle to arrive at the house fire and it arrived about six minutes after Engine 1, which was the first fire truck on scene. The first engine is responsible for immediately throwing water on the fire to make it safer for search and rescue efforts.
But because the rescue truck had only one firefighter, he had to wait for more firefighters to arrive before beginning search and rescue efforts, Roberts said.
"The rescue truck can't go into a fire with just one man, so he had wait for other crews," Roberts said. "I don't know how long he waited, but in a house fire, seconds count."
The dispatch log shows that a ladder truck and two fire engines arrived seconds after the rescue truck, but union officials questioned the accuracy of the log. They said the log is compiled manually by fire dispatchers who were in the middle of more pressing duties during the fire.
According to fire Chief Richard Borden, Public Safety Commissioner Alan DeNaro said the rescue truck's reduced staffing played no role in the tragedy. They also said there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the log.
"These are union firefighters in the dispatch. The log is accurate," DeNaro said.
Borden said there were more than enough firefighters who arrived at the scene quickly to perform the duties of the rescue truck.
"When firefighters arrived, the house was fully engulfed and entry was impossible,'' Borden said. "Despite that, and despite the danger to themselves, the firefighters did attempt to enter from the rear, but were unable to gain access because the fire had spread. ... No amount of manning would have changed this tragedy."
In an interview last night, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said the cause of the fire appears to be accidental.
"We've seen nothing to believe it was an intentionally set fire," Coan said. "There are a couple of accidental scenarios we're looking at. The preliminary conclusion is that nothing leads us to believe it was a suspicious fire."
Before Coan makes a definitive finding, he said investigators must conduct additional interviews, including one with a tenant who was injured in the fire. Coan would not identify that person. No determination has been made on the cause of Lamot's death.
DeNaro said the first firefighters on scene were told a person was believed to be trapped in the building. He said firefighters tried to gain entry through the back of the building with a hose, but had to stop when an electrical wire caught fire and fell on a fire hose and damaged it. By the time firefighters could get a second hose set up, the fire was too intense for them to get into the apartment and search for the woman, DeNaro said.
DeNaro said the victim lived with two younger relatives who tried to put the fire out themselves instead of calling 911 immediately. He said that caused a crucial delay in the arrival of firefighters.
The other relatives in the home have been identified as Raymond Matthes, 55, and Sherry Matthes, 53. Both Raymond and Sherry Matthes were injured in the fire. One was taken to a Boston hospital with serious, but non-life-threatening injuries, officials said. The other was taken to a local hospital. It was unclear which victims went to which hospitals.
DeNaro commended the firefighters who were on scene, saying the fire posed a threat to neighboring homes which were saved because of the firefighters' actions.
Fiorentini said he was upset and saddened to be called a murderer.
"It is reckless and irresponsible for the union and one member who was not even at the scene to have made such statements," the mayor said. "Trying to spin such a tragedy into a political attack is completely irresponsible, particularly when it does not fit the facts."
In a text message to a reporter, firefighter Todd Guertin said, "The mayor should be charged with murder for taking the rescue truck out of service over a dispute with the union. Is a wrongful death lawsuit gonna cost the city more than $200,000?"
In a subsequent phone interview, Guertin repeatedly and angrily blamed the victim's death on the mayor.
Fiorentini said he intended to reach out to the victim's relatives to give his personal condolences.
"Our hearts and our sympathy go out to the families of the victim," he said. "These families have gone through enough."
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