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Records show chaos, communication failures at fire that killed firefighter

The police file describes a scene with low visibility, firefighters yelling for help and garbled radio transmissions

By Dave Altimari and Steven Goode
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — As fire swept through a Hartford home in the early evening of Oct. 7, 2014, five firefighters inside the second-floor living room heard a commander’s desperate radio call to “bail out.”

“All units out of the building now.”

Engine 16 Lt. John Moree would later tell investigators he searched for, but couldn’t find, his partner, firefighter Kevin Bell, who was manning a hose inside the room. Moree got out nearly three minutes after the first of a series of orders to evacuate the house.

With a commander urgently ordering Engine 16 to account for its members, radio calls from Moree to Bell came fast and frequently.

“Engine 16b, 16c report,” Moree yelled over the radio.

Bell was 16b. Firefighter Bryan Little was 16c. Unbeknownst to Moree, Little had escaped down the back stairway, assisting firefighter Colin McWeeny, whose mask had been knocked off twice by blasts from a firefighter’s hose.

Seconds later Moree tried to reach Bell again, “16 to firefighter Bell,” and then “16 pipe,” a reference to Bell’s role manning a hose.

There was silence.

The transmissions are documented in a nearly 1,700-page state police file on the fire in which Bell, 48 and a member of the department for six years, was killed and another firefighter severely injured. The documents, including audio recordings, were obtained by The Courant through a freedom of information request.

The state police file provides new details about firefighters’ actions in the room where Bell was found and the minutes after fire officials realized that he was missing. The records describe a chaotic scene inside the house with low visibility, heavy smoke, firefighters yelling for help and garbled radio transmissions.

The file includes summaries of statements by firefighters at the scene, photos from inside the room where Bell died and schematics of the two-story home. The file also reveals the fire was accidental, starting at a faulty electrical plug.

Just more than two minutes after Moree began trying to reach Bell by radio, he told Deputy Chief Leigh Shapiro that Bell could not be found.

“Where the [expletive] is he?” Shapiro asked Moree. “What do you mean you can’t find him? Where did you leave him?”

Moree said he last saw Bell at the top of the stairs leading to the living room. Shapiro asked, “Are you sure? Are you sure he isn’t out here somewhere?”

“I don’t know,” Moree responded.

Bell On The Line

State police concluded the fire started in a second-floor bedroom of the woman who was renting the home. It originated from an electrical plug and spread to a hamper and plastic items in the room.

The file also reveals Bell was likely in control of the hose at the time streams of water knocked the masks off McWeeny and firefighter Jason Martinez, who fell from a second-floor window in the front of the building. Martinez was burned over 10 percent of his body and did not return to work until last year.

That conclusion differs from the internal review done by department officials, which said Bell’s hose had become “errant” before the streams struck the firefighters.

The fire led to scathing reports on problems with the department’s equipment and training and on the mistakes that led to Hartford’s first line-of-duty death in four decades. Among conclusions reached by a department board of inquiry were that there was a failure to properly search the room in which Bell was trapped and that no one heard Moree’s mayday distress call while the firefighters were still in the building.

In the aftermath, the department implemented changes, including improvements in communications, firefighting procedures and a marked increase in training.

The state police report questions why as many as seven firefighters were in one room, in some cases unaware of each other, and attacking the fire from different directions.

Bell and Moree entered the living room and moved left through the door while a second group moved to the right. On the other side of the room, entering through a door from the kitchen were firefighters from Engine 7 and members of the tactical unit, which included Martinez.

Moree ordered Bell to open his nozzle and “attempt to cool down the conditions.” State police said it was “very highly probable” that as Bell sprayed toward the kitchen entrance he struck Martinez, McWeeny, and two other firefighters — Bryan Riddick and Lt. Scott Cunningham — knocking the masks off McWeeny and Martinez.

McWeeny was eventually carried down the back stairwell by Little, the third member of Bell’s unit who had entered the living room. Martinez made his way to a window, leaving sooty fingerprints on the white wall, until he fell out.

Riddick told investigators he “jumped on the line” to stop the spray and realized another firefighter was on the line and turned off the hose. State police said that Bell was operating the “only attack hose line” in the room at the time the firefighters were sprayed.

It was around this time that Moree radioed “mayday, mayday ... you’re not on the line.” A “mayday” must be called when certain conditions exist, including if a firefighter becomes disoriented or lost inside a structure, is trapped or entangled, is running low on air or loses contact with a hose. Moree told investigators several of those conditions existed, but the report does not elaborate.

State police concluded, as had the board of inquiry, that no one heard Moree’s initial mayday call. Moree said he made a second mayday call, but state police said they could not find evidence of a second call.

Less than 20 seconds after Martinez fell from the window, scene commander Deputy Chief James McLoughlin ordered all units to “bail out.” Moree told state police he was at that point searching for Bell inside the room but could not find him.

A second call came from Shapiro ordering “16. Get out of the building right away, out.” Moree got outside at 6:49:08. His unit had entered the living room at approximately 6:39:44 and had activated their air at about 6:36.

After Moree made numerous efforts to raise Bell by radio, he went back to Engine 16 to change his air pack. He then saw Little for the first time since exiting the building.

Moree asked Little “have you seen Kev?” and Little said no. As they walked over to refill their bottles Little could hear calls for Bell but wasn’t sure who was making them. Little said he wasn’t sure how long it was before Moree told commanders Bell was missing but that “it wasn’t immediately.”

Little grabbed his gear and headed back toward the front door. He told state police “it seemed like a long time with no one looking for Kevin.”

After Moree told Shapiro that Bell was missing, a rapid intervention team entered the house and found Bell within 30 seconds. “We have a man down, top of the stairs, right side ... getting him out,” a member radioed.

It was 6:53:43.

A Lawsuit And Honor

Bell was found just inside the door to the living room to the right, lying prone on his right side with his head facing the window from which Martinez fell. His foot was intertwined with a piece of furniture.

The mask from his self-contained breathing apparatus was still affixed to his face and the regulator attached to it. State police said that Bell had been “on air” for about 18 minutes and was wearing a tank that should have contained 30 minutes of air. The tank was empty when it was removed from his body once they got him outside.

The medical examiner’s office ruled Bell’s death an accident caused by lack of “breathing gas.” The death certificate states that Bell ran out of air while he was fighting the fire. It also lists cardiac hypertrophy — an enlarged heart — as a contributing factor in his death.

A preliminary federal report on the breathing apparatus found that one of the alarms that should have warned Bell that his air tank was running out of air was not working properly.

The report said that Bell suffered some burns to his extremities that were non-life threatening and didn’t sustain any traumatic injuries.

“It will never be known if Firefighter Bell was conscious at the time of asphyxiation,” the state report concluded.

Moree, who is still with the department, declined to comment on the state police report, citing a confidentiality agreement relating to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bell’s family in 2015.

The suit, which named the city, former Harford fire Chief Carlos Huertas, McLoughlin and Moree as defendants, alleged among other things that “Moree inexplicably failed to muster a prompt effort to alert fellow firefighters who had not responded to his ‘mayday call’ in an effort to bring about Bell’s rescue.”

The family settled the suit for $350,000 in December. Engine Company 16 was renamed in honor of Bell in April.

Copyright 2017 The Hartford Courant