Fire chief defends decision to not deploy aerial ladder rescues in fatal fire

Chief Jay Delaney said the fact that the aerial ladder truck was out of service played no part in the decision to have many of the residents shelter in place

By Steve Mocarsky
The Citizens' Voice

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Although three ladder trucks were present at the high-rise apartment building fire that killed two women Tuesday, the city fire chief says his decision not to deploy aerial ladder rescues for the building's 150-some elderly residents was the right one.

Chief Jay Delaney said the fact that the city's aerial ladder truck was out of service played no part in the decision to have many of the residents of Lincoln Plaza shelter in place.

Delaney said claims on social media that the city's ladder truck had been out of service for several weeks were incorrect. He said the city's truck was out of service for 48 hours because it was having an alternator replaced at the Department of Public Works.

There were, however, ladder trucks from Kingston, Hanover Twp. and Plains Twp. on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, in a cul-de-sac off East Northampton Street, and in a cul-de-sac off East Market Street and Lincoln Way, respectively, he said.

Delaney said his decision not to order aerial rescues came down to risk management.

"Is it worth the risk to take an elderly person off a balcony and down a 90- or 100-foot ladder or trust the interior fire attack team and, if they have the fire knocked down, trust that it's safer for the residents to stay where they're at?" Delaney said.

The chief said the interior attack team had the fire contained to one room. His options at that point were either to evacuate residents on foot through smoke-filled hallways, to take them down a ladder or to have them shelter in place, he said.

"I trusted our interior fire attack team" that was under the command of Assistant Chief Ed Snarski, Delaney said.

"It was the right call," Delaney added. "No one was injured and no one was taken to the hospital. We feel terrible about the unfortunate loss of life. And had the fire left the room, we had three aerial ladder trucks in position."

Smoke, CO caused deaths

Luzerne County Coroner William Lisman said forensic pathologist Dr. Gary Ross performed an autopsy on Luann Gilroy, 62, and determined she died of smoke inhalation as a result of the fire.

Gloria Nieves, 55, died of carbon monoxide intoxication as a result of the fire, Lisman said, adding that Nieves' cause of death was able to be determined without an autopsy.

The women lived in separate apartments on the fifth floor of the building, and Lisman said on Tuesday there were indications they were trying to exit the building when they died.

The Coroner's Office has not ruled on a manner of death pending the results of an investigation into the cause of the fire.

Delaney said the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal's Office has taken the lead in the investigation in conjunction with the city fire and police departments.

Red Cross assisting

Delaney said 43 of the 150 residents who were displaced are being sheltered in the gymnasium of GAR High School; the remainder are staying with family or friends.

Zara Khawaja, a disaster relief specialist with the American Red Cross, said numerous pets were rescued from the building, and firefighters coordinated with the Luzerne County Animal Response Team to bring them to the shelter.

The response team provided cages for the animals as well as food and other supplies. All of the animals had been matched with their owners, Khawaja said, adding that Nieves' family planned to pick up her cat later Wednesday.

Delaney said he had stopped by the shelter Wednesday morning and had "nothing but the highest praise for the American Red Cross. They're doing an amazing job providing food and cots and filling the needs of the residents there," Delaney said.

Third-floor resident Paulette Haffenden agreed with the chief.

"This really helps a lot. It's like my home away from home," Haffenden, 55, said mid-afternoon Tuesday at the shelter while waiting to return to her apartment.

"Everybody was courteous, professional. I feel welcome here. The Red Cross did a totally wonderful job. I can't stop praising them," Haffenden said.

Khawaja said the Red Cross couldn't do what they do without donations and urged the public to contribute to the organization.

Haffenden said she wasn't at home when the fire broke out around noon Tuesday. She heard about it and thought she had lost everything before arriving at the building around 9 p.m. Tuesday night. She was relieved to find out her possessions were not destroyed.

"Then I heard two people died. I am so sorry for them," Haffenden said.

Returning home

Khawaja said the Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority -- the building owner -- was providing a bus to take first- through fourth-floor residents back to Lincoln Plaza between 4:15 and 6 p.m. Wednesday. She didn't know when upper-floor residents could return.

Delaney said the fifth floor sustained heavy fire, smoke and water damage, and there was a heavy odor of smoke remaining on the sixth through 10th floors late Wednesday morning. He said city code enforcement officials would inspect the building and give the OK before allowing residents to return.

Delaney said housing authority officials would make the final call on which residents would be allowed to return and when.

Authority Executive Director Judy Kosloski did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

New truck needed

City officials are still waiting on word from Kosloski on whether the authority board will or won't contribute funding toward a new ladder truck for the city.

While none of the aerial trucks at the fire -- nor Wilkes-Barre's -- had ladders that would extend to the top floor of the building, Delaney emphasized that the city needs a new ladder truck because the existing 2003 model is out of service for repairs too frequently.

He said the truck often remains out of service longer than a newer model would because the manufacturer went out of business in 2014, so replacement parts are hard to find as well as expensive.

Delaney and Deputy Chief Alan Klapat made their case to the housing authority board in October why the city's ladder truck should be replaced, and why the authority should pay at least part of the $1.2 million cost for a new one.

Delaney said the truck is "critical for high-rise fire fighting."

In addition to the authority's four high-rise buildings, there are 224 other buildings in the city higher than four stories. But the chief said the authority is "one of the highest high-end users of the services of the fire department of any entity in the city," for fire and EMS calls.

Authority Deputy Executive Director Joe Pirillo has said Kosloski would seek guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the possibility of contributing toward the cost of the truck.

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