Lawsuit Filed for 3 Wilmington Firefighters & Families Charges Dereliction of Duty by 2 City Mayors


Images courtesy Wilmington Fire Dept.

The families of three Wilmington firefighters who died in the line of duty battling a row house fire at Canby Estates near Elsmere in September of 2016 are suing two Wilmington Mayors, the City and others.  Attorneys with The Neuberger Firm and Jacobs & Crumplar are seeking compensatory and punitive damages and a jury trial.   They say that an official City policy that was put into effect in 2009 kept the closest water available to the fire scene away from responding.  The policy closed a fire engine with its water and hoses every shift – this took away 500 to 750 gallons of immediately available water from the fire scene.  Firefighters had to call an engine from farther away which had to travel a longer distance before any water could be put on the fire.

The attorneys also allege that another policy that was in place in Wilmington in 2013  deliberately understaffed the Fire Department – leaving many fully funded firefighter positions vacant – if they had been filled – it would have prevented the mothballing of fire engines.  The complaint charges the three firefighter deaths are due to the dereliction of duty by Mayors Dennis Williams and James Baker and their appointees.


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 Dennis Williams, James Baker, 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 gaping 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 Mayors Baker and Williams 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.