Attorney seeks 911 tapes from fatal Ind. fire

By Ashley Smith and Aaron Organ
The News-Sentinel

FORT WAYNE, Ind. —The attorney who brought the petition against the city to release documents on the Willows of Coventry fire is insisting more be released.

On Friday afternoon, the Fort Wayne Fire Department released a majority of the 194 documents listed in Allen Superior Court filings from July 10, but still withheld 911 calls from the victims, dispatch communications and personnel files alleging misconduct against one firefighter at the scene. The documents listed possible causes of the fire as well as details of a crew bringing out three women. The three later died.

"Dial Equities will continue to press for the E-911 tapes and the fire department dispatch transmissions," said Cal Miller, attorney representing Dial Equities Inc., the Omaha (Neb.)-based parent company of the Willows of Coventry.

The Jan. 23 early morning fire at Willows claimed the lives of Lara A. Punches, 19, of Defiance, Ohio; Renea L. Patton, 18, of Ottawa, Ohio; and Jennifer Spurgeon, 19, of Winamac, Ohio; all of whom died of smoke inhalation.

In May, Miller filed the petition against the city of Fort Wayne for those public documents, but the city claimed they were "investigatory records." A few weeks ago, Judge David J. Avery ordered the city to put together a log of which documents it is not releasing. The logs included records from fires Oct. 20 and Nov. 26 that were also within the Willows apartment complex. There was also mention of an October trash bin fire within the complex.

Tim Manges, who is defending the city in this case, said Friday the city has been discussing the release of documents since the case began and attempting to sift through what may be appropriate for release and what will remain under wraps.

"Their hope is to release as many as they feel appropriate to release, and they're in that process right now," he said. "It could have been last week; it could have been next week. ... I think the city has just decided the release of these documents will not jeopardize the investigation, so let's give them up."

Manges said it was hard to say whether the documents could have jeopardized the investigation, but he noted that they "might have."

Manges said the city is still withholding the 911 tapes out of respect for the victims' families, though he did say the city is debating whether it is the city's responsibility to essentially protect those victims' families. One tape, as indicated by the log in court documents, includes a 29-minute, 50-second phone call from Patton to the Fort Wayne Police Department, reporting the fire.

Manges said personnel files, such as the alleged misconduct against the former firefighter, are protected under state law, and the city is under no obligation to release those.

"Their hope is to release as many as they feel appropriate to release, and they're in that process right now," said Manges.

Fort Wayne Fire Chief Pete Kelly and City Attorney Carol Taylor did not return multiple calls seeking comments before press time.

The following is a summary of some of the Jan. 23 fire documents released Friday:

Nineteen firefighter observation reports detailed essentially what the particular firefighter's duty was and what he witnessed while performing it.

Probationary firefighter Quentin Kruse was part of the rescue team sent in to pull the women from the apartment. In his report, Kruse recalled Capt. Adam O'Connor leading him and two other firefighters through a busted window.

Kruse said the group walked past a bathroom inside the burning apartment before O'Connor instructed them to backtrack to a bedroom. There, the group found the women.

The firefighters carried the victims out the window they entered through, and CPR was performed on them outside the burning structure before they were rushed to Lutheran Hospital.

Another report, by Pvt. James Logan, recalled his rescue team being called back into the building after the women were rescued to search for another victim believed to be still trapped. As Logan and his crew searched, Logan noted the floor of the apartment was "spongy," and that a call came in that fire was in the void between the floor and first-floor ceiling, prompting that crew to be called from the building.

Firefighter Steve McDonald said in his observation report that his responding truck, Engine 2, was stalled at a railroad crossing by a passing train near its home station.

No observation report noted the firefighter hearing a smoke or fire alarm.

One fire incident report claimed the origin of the fire to be the second story. Another incident report claimed the origin to be the void area under the stairs leading up to 5136 Coventry Parkway.

The same incident report said the three victims were found unconscious by firefighters.

An incident report of an interview with a witness said she walked into her living room and noticed the area around an electrical outlet glowing. She also said that her apartment was rapidly filling with smoke. The report found heat damage around that outlet.

An incident report investigating the cause of the fire said the area around an exterior light switch exhibited "extensive damage and beading."

The report also noted an area around the gas meters could be a point of "malicious ignition."

The incident report referenced a CrimeStoppers tip from a psychiatrist who suspected a patient of starting the fire because he was upset about being thrown out of International Business College's veterinary technician program and tried to commit suicide. The former student acknowledged he left International Business College, which houses students at the Willows, after he failed to receive sufficient grades for a course. He denied visiting the Willows dorms.

Field notes taken at the scene by District Chief Greg Jeffries and Capt. Rick Godsey said the fire department was dispatched at 5:06 a.m. with the "victims coming out window" at 5:26 a.m.

Copyright 2009 The News-Sentinel

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