N.Y. chiefs, departments, homeowner 'negligent' in 2002 LODDs

By Jim O'Hara and Douglass Dowty
The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York)

POMPEY, N.Y. — Onondaga County is claiming negligence by two volunteer fire departments and their chiefs led to the deaths of two firefighters in a Pompey house fire six years ago.

The county leveled the accusations against the Pompey Hill and Manlius fire departments in papers filed recently in its defense against a $10 million lawsuit filed by one of the victims' widows against the county and former county Fire Coordinator Mike Waters.

The county has long maintained it and Waters were not negligent. The new court filings contain a litany of alleged negligence by fire department chiefs at the scene, including failing to determine exactly where the fire was located in the home on Sweet Road before sending in firefighters. The county also said a chief set up a command post from where he could not see the fire. The chiefs also were not aware of the home's construction and access points, the lawsuit claims.

Killed in the fire March 7, 2002, were Fayetteville Firefighter Timothy Lynch, 28, and Manlius Firefighter John Ginocchetti, 41.

Lynch's widow, Donna Prince Lynch, filed suit in 2003 seeking to hold the county and Waters liable for the death of her husband. She claimed Waters was negligent in ordering her husband into the wood-frame structure that had been burning for about 55 minutes.

She later added homeowner Joseph Messina as a defendant.

The county is now seeking to pass any blame on to the fire departments and their officials at the scene.

In papers filed recently in state Supreme Court, the county and Waters claim any financial liability for the death of Timothy Lynch should be attributed to the Pompey Hill Fire District, the Pompey Hill Fire Department, Assistant Chiefs Richard Abbott and Mark Kovalewski, the village of Manlius, the Manlius Fire Department, Deputy Chief Raymond Dill and homeowner Messina.

State Supreme Court Justice Donald Greenwood last year dismissed the lawsuit filed by Lynch's widow. But the state Supreme Court Appellate Division in Rochester in February reinstated the part that charged a violation of General Municipal Law and accused Waters of failing to comply with the state's emergency command and control system. The court concluded there was an issue of whether Waters had a supervisory role.

The county contends that if there was any negligence on its or Waters' parts, it was less than that of the volunteer fire departments and their officials. Any damages should be paid by those departments and their officials, the county claims.

Deputy County Attorney Karen Bleskoski said Waters had no authority at the scene and is not, therefore, liable for anything that happened.

Dill said he could not comment on the county's allegations since he had not seen the filing. He, however, said the fire changed how the Manlius department handles fires.

After the fire, volunteers started using "timer clocks" to gauge how long the fire was burning and whether firefighters were in danger, Dill said. It also made firefighters more aware of what buildings are made out of and how different materials burn.

"We all said, 'What could we have done differently?'" Dill said. "This is not something anybody wanted."

Steve Shahan, lawyer for Pompey Hill, Abbott and Kovalewski, said he expects firefighters will deny the allegations in a written response. He declined to comment on the charges.

Shahan said he wasn't surprised by the county's allegations.

"Whenever you have this type of lawsuit, you always try to spread the blame," he said.

He said he advised his clients not to speak about the case. Kovalewski declined comment. Abbott did not answer a call to his residence or interview requests made through the fire department and Shahan.

Waters also declined comment.

In the year after the fire, state and federal officials issued reports criticizing the management of the volunteer firefighters during the blaze.

The fire was reported about 7:21 p.m. About 125 firefighters from more than 20 companies responded to fight the blaze in the house where the Messinas had lived since they had it built 14 years earlier.

According to the county's new court filing, this was the sequence of events that led up to the firefighters' deaths:

Messina was grinding rebar in his basement workshop when a fire broke out between the ceiling and the floor above. Messina could not be reached for comment.

Abbott took on the role of incident commander upon his arrival and sent a three-man attack team from the Pompey Hill Fire Department into the garage. The county claims Abbott knew nothing about the structure of the house or the location of any access points into the residence from the garage.

He also set up his command post at his vehicle from which he was unable to see the burning building. The attack team he sent into the garage had no knowledge of the location of the fire in the basement or that it originated in the basement ceiling. Those firefighters had no further communication with Abbott after entering the garage.

Kovalewski took the role of operations officer and went to the rear of the burning building where he remained throughout the fire.

When Dill arrived and reported to Abbott, Abbott did not tell him of the location of the fire or any access routes to the blaze. When Dill then authorized Lynch and Ginocchetti to relieve the Pompey Hill team that had originally been sent into the garage, he had no knowledge of where they were going once they entered the garage.

When Lynch and Ginocchetti entered the house's mudroom, they fell into the basement and other firefighters were unable to rescue them before they died.

The Charges:

Onondaga County and its former fire coordinator, Mike Waters, claim in court papers,

Richard Abbott, assistant Pompey Hill fire chief, failed to:
• Determine the structure of the burning home, identify all access into the residence from the garage and establish a command post from which he could see the burning building.
• Advise the attack teams of the location of the fire and remain in contact with them or see that they had a radio to properly communicate with Mark Kovalewski and to continuously evaluate the fire conditions and strategic decisions.
• Obtain sufficient water supplies.

Mark Kovalewski, assistant fire chief, failed to:
• Leave the rear of the building, monitor all activities, establish communication with the attack team and properly communicate with Abbott.
• Determine the progression of the fire and re-evaluate strategic decisions with Abbott in light of actual operations.

The garage attack team of the Pompey Hill Fire Department failed to:
• Possess a radio or remain in contact with Abbott to advise him of the inability to reach the fire.
• Advise the Manlius firefighters who relieved them of the conditions in the garage, the location of the fire or access to the basement and the conditions they had encountered.

Raymond Dill, Manlius deputy fire chief:
• Authorized Timothy Lynch and other Manlius firefighters to enter the garage when he did not know the construction of the building, the location and progression of the fire and any access routes.

Joseph Messina, property owner:
• Grinded rebar in his basement, failing to ensure that sparks were not able to start a fire between the suspended ceiling tiles and the floor above and failing to have appropriate fire extinguishing equipment.
• Failed to immediately notify 911 or a fire department.
• Failed to ensure the fire companies knew the exact location of the fire and the home's construction.

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