Relatives of firefighters who died battling a blaze at a vacant home earlier this year gathered at the site Wednesday with their attorneys, announcing they plan to sue the city and the state in hopes of preventing another tragedy.
“We want to effect change,” said Lacey Marino, a sister of Lt. Kelsey Sadler. “We want firefighters to be safer.”
The move comes days after the city released a report last week that evaluated the circumstances surrounding the Jan. 24 fire at 205 S. Stricker St. that killed Sadler, Lt. Paul Butrim, and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo, and injured EMT/firefighter John McMaster. Fire Chief Niles R. Ford resigned alongside its release, and city officials said they plan to make changes suggested in the report.
The law firm of Miller Stern Lawyers LLC, which is representing relatives of the firefighters who died as well as McMaster, filed a notice of a claim with the city and state on Tuesday, saying the tragedy “could have and should have been prevented.”
“While the line of duty report highlights several failures by Baltimore City and the Baltimore Fire Department, it is not the complete story, and it is far from the accountability expected,” the firm wrote in its Dec. 7 notice.
The attorneys faulted the city for discontinuing a program called Code X-Ray to mark unsafe vacant structures, as well as state efforts such as Project C.O.R.E. that were supposed to accelerate the demolition of vacant homes.
“While they would like to pin the blame on the fire department, Baltimore City and the state of Maryland elected officials cannot hide behind firefighter failures. They are responsible for these deaths. Their negligence has resulted in devastation for the families and to the broader firefighting community,” said Daniel J. Miller, one of the lawyers.
“It’s not about asking how much it costs to tear these [vacant houses] down but asking what the cost is if we don’t.”
Last week’s report, compiled by regional safety officials, faulted the city fire department for failing to abide by recommendations made in past reports about close calls and line-of-duty deaths, including hiring assistants to aid incident response leaders and providing first responders with updated portable radios that alert others when a call to the radio goes unanswered.
It also said that previous recommendations could have helped rein in the chaos and confusion at the scene, which included a battalion chief who missed crucial radio calls because they were so overwhelmed with managing the response, as well as a muddled risk management assessment of the fire that did not account for damage from a previous blaze at the rowhome that may have led to structural instability.
Meanwhile, at a hearing Tuesday, union officials told members of the city council that the Fire Department’s vehicle fleet is depleted, operating with only 12 of 17 fully staffed ladder trucks, which are used to search for trapped victims and remove them to safety.
“This is an unacceptable situation,” said Joshua Fannon, president of the union representing fire officers. “It puts our members at risk. It puts our community at risk that we serve.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen said at that hearing that he was “deeply concerned with the overall functioning of the department at this point.”
The notice of personal injury claim attacks the failure of the city and state to demolish 205 South Stricker St.
In February, The Banner charted the history of the property. The collapse of a home two doors down in 1997, caused the home and a home in between to shift “right off the foundation,” said Robert Shore, whose family left the home when they moved to rural Pennsylvania in 2008.
It was declared vacant by the city in 2010. That same year, it was sold at public auction to First National Assets, a company that buys tax liens. But FNA failed to pay the back taxes, interest and penalties, and the city got the sale overturned in 2014. The home went unclaimed at subsequent tax auctions.
A fire at the home in 2015 injured four firefighters, with the fire deemed the result of “homeless activity.” Another fire occurred in 2016, the attorneys say.
Kevin Stern, one of the attorneys representing the families, said the Code X-Ray program that was designed to place red signs on the outside of homes that were unsafe should have stayed in place. Miller also questioned why the city and state have been unable to make better progress in demolishing unsafe structures.
A 2021 report on Project C.O.R.E. by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development said that more than 5,000 “units of blight” were demolished or stabilized between Jan. 1, 2016, and Oct. 31, 2021, with 400 more planned. Baltimore’s capital budget for 2022 earmarks $50 million for properties that pose health and safety risks or require urgent demolition, with the state contributing $12 million for Project C.O.R.E. The state estimates it costs $35,000 to tear down a home, with more costs if a structural wall is required for an adjacent home, or if residents need to be relocated.
“205 S. Stricker should have been demolished years ago, after the first fire there, but the City of Baltimore and its elected officials, agents and employees chose to allocate the City’s resources elsewhere, including but not limited to eliminating the Code X-Ray program and failing to implement the CORE project appropriately,” the notice said.
“At the end of the day, the city’s priorities need to be fixed,” Stern added in an interview.
Clara Fenelon, who was engaged to Lacayo, said firefighters have been warned against speaking out about problems in the department.
“That’s not the way we’re going to make this better,” she said.
Sadler’s husband, Brandon Sadler, said the prospect of change seemed out of reach.
“These buildings are going to keep falling down and catching fire,” he said. Firefighters are “going to go in again. Again and again. And the city’s not going to care. Again and again. And somebody’s just going to be standing [here] like we are.”