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Mo. firefighter sues agencies, colleagues

By Elizabethe Holland
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Cindy Schuenke, the firefighter-paramedic who was severely burned in a fire three years ago in north St. Louis County, has filed suit against three fire agencies and numerous firefighters who responded to the blaze with her.

Schuenke, 44, suffered severe burns March 29, 2006, while searching for the mother of a fellow firefighter in a burning house in Vinita Terrace. Her suit, filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court, alleges that firefighters at the scene, and their commander there, made mistake after mistake. The suit also alleged that two fire chiefs had failed to train their fire personnel to properly handle such situations.

The suit also names Grace Industries Inc., the maker of a personal alert safety system (PASS) device that Schuenke wore into the fire. The suit says the device failed to sound, therefore failing to alert rescuers to her predicament and location.

In addition to numerous firefighters who responded to the fire, the suit names as defendants the Mid-County Fire Protection District, its chief, Tom Vineyard, and Capt. Ankenneth Corbin, the incident commander at the blaze; University City and its fire department’s chief, Steve Olshwanger; and the Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District and two of its firefighters who were inside the burning house with Schuenke. The suit does not name Schuenke’s employer, the Community Fire Protection District, as a defendant. She cannot sue that district because she is receiving worker’s compensation benefits through it.

Lawyer Chet Pleban, whose firm filed the suit, acknowledged Thursday that it was uncommon for first responders to sue other first responders. Schuenke’s case, however, warranted the inclusion of fire personnel and their departments, he said.

“We felt we had to look under all of the rocks and turn over all the stones, regardless of where it took us,” Pleban said. “This was just a truly tragic event all the way around, and while we have filed this lawsuit, this young lady is never going to be made whole. All the money in the world isn’t going to restore her to what she was before. She lost a career, and her life will be forever changed.”

Officials with Grace and the Mid-County and Northeast fire districts could not be reached for comment. Olshwanger, the University City chief, said Thursday that he was not aware of the suit.

At the fire scene, Schuenke was trying with other firefighters to reach Geneva Rooks, the mother of fellow Community firefighter Vaughn Rooks.

Schuenke fell through a collapsed section of floor and hung on as Community firefighter Thomas “Bubba” Yahnke tried to pull her out. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Schuenke fell into the burning basement, landed on a live electrical wire and became trapped, but managed to free herself. With both hands and a foot exposed, she ran through flames and debris to a window, where a firefighter helped her climb out.

Geneva Rooks’ body was recovered later from a bedroom.

The suit accuses Corbin, the Mid-County captain in charge of the fire scene, of:

  • Failing to order that water be sprayed through the basement windows onto the source of the fire.
  • Failing to order a search-and-rescue team to use a thermal-imaging camera in the search for Geneva Rooks.
  • Wrongly ordering Schuenke and other firefighters to enter the burning building because, among several reasons, it was improbable that Geneva Rooks was still alive.
  • Failing to have a properly prepared rescue team ready to respond when Yahnke called for someone to help Schuenke.

The suit also accuses a University City assistant chief and battalion chief of failing to recognize “that Corbin was mismanaging the fire scene, had lost control of the fire scene, and was exposing firefighters ... to a heightened and unreasonable risk of danger.” The two should have removed Corbin as incident commander, the suit says.

Schuenke has since had several surgeries, amounting to more than $1.16 million in medical costs.

Schuenke has not been able to return to work, but said she has made great progress. Still, she said, her desire to return to work as a firefighter-paramedic has not waned.

“I want to go back to it,” Schuenke said Thursday. “I miss it. ... That’s my life.”

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