City firefighter recruit dies
Mother of 2 collapses while training in rowhouse blaze set by instructors
By Annie Linskey
Originally published February 9, 2007, 10:30 PM EST
A 29-year-old recruit with the city Fire Department died during a training exercise Friday as she tried to extinguish a blaze set by instructors in a vacant rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, according to fire officials.
Racheal Wilson, mother of an 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, was inside a three-story dwelling when she collapsed about noon and was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. She died shortly after she arrived, fire officials said. Details of her injuries were not released Friday. She had started training in November.
"We're in shock," said acting Fire Chief Theodore Saunders. "Today is a reminder of how dangerous this profession is." Saunders did not answer questions at the brief news conference outside the hospital.
The president of the Firefighters Union Local 734, Rick Schluderberg, said the incident raises questions about the practice of using vacant rowhouses as training grounds for recruits. The house used is in the 100 block of S. Calverton Road, near West Lombard Street.
"Things like this are not supposed to happen in training," Schluderberg said Friday night. "We like to make it as real as possible, but this got out of hand." He pointed out that the department has a building on the grounds of its training academy on Pulaski Highway that can be used to introduce cadets to the hazards of dealing with a fire.
Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Fire Department, gave few details of the investigation or how Wilson might have been put in jeopardy. He would not say where in the building she was but said the rowhouse appeared to be structurally sound, and he didn't believe any part of it had collapsed.
He defended the practice of setting vacant rowhouses on fire for training purposes. "It simulates the kinds of structures and environments that the recruits will be operating in when they go out to the field," he said.
Wilson was a firefighter-paramedic apprentice. Recruits often go through joint training and decide later whether to become paramedics or firefighters.
Two others were injured in the fire: a female member of the recruit class and a male firefighter. Both were treated Friday from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and released.
Fire Chief Williams J. Goodwin was in Israel for a series of homeland security meetings Friday. He left the meetings early and is expected to be in Baltimore Saturday.
Members of the recruit class were being interviewed at fire headquarters Friday night. "We need to get everyone's account," Cartwright said. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is participating in the investigation.
Wison's death was announced at a news conference in front of Shock Trauma. "As I stand here in the cold, my heart right now is very heavy for the loss," Mayor Sheila Dixon told reporters. "To the firefighters who make a major sacrifice every day, I want to just extend our wholehearted condolences."
Dr. Thomas Scalea, the head of surgery at Shock Trauma who treated Wilson, also offered his condolences. "I assure you that this individual received everything, everything that we have to offer," he said.
A wreath was placed in the doorway of the brick rowhouse Friday, which is at the end of a block with other vacant dwellings.
Wilson's academy was expected to graduate in March and has one of the highest number of female recruits in recent memory, Cartwright said.
Wilson lived near Belvedere Square in North Baltimore with her son, Cameron, her daughter, Princess, and her boyfriend, Cartwright said. She was originally from Louisiana, and her parents live in Denver.
The last firefighter to die in the line of duty was Allan M. Roberts, 40. He was burned while trying to put out a fire in a Greektown rowhouse in mid-October. Two other firefighters were injured during that blaze.