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W.Va. man sues water company after firefighters are forced to watch home burn

Charleston firefighters faced three bad hydrants and had to wait on tankers from neighboring FDs


WCHS Eyewitness News/YouTube

By Julia Marnin
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A man watched a growing blaze slowly turn into a raging fire that burned down his family home when his neighborhood’s fire hydrants weren’t working properly, according to a new lawsuit.

Firefighters arrived minutes after they were called about the fire the evening of May 5 in Charleston, West Virginia, and they “had everything they needed — except water,” a complaint filed May 22 says.

Ric Cavender, 40, and his neighbors were forced to witness the fire fully engulf his home over the course of four hours as firefighters unsuccessfully tried to get water out of three nearby fire hydrants, according to the complaint.

By the time outside help came with water tankers to extinguish the fire, Cavender’s home, and everything inside was destroyed, the complaint says. He lived there with his two sons, Cavender’s attorney Michael Hissam, of Hissam Forman Donovan Ritchie PLLC law firm, told McClatchy News.

His family dog, Duke, a brindle boxer who was nearly 5 years old, died in the fire, according to the lawsuit and Hissam.

Cavender is suing West Virginia American Water Company, which he says was supposed to ensure the fire hydrants were working and had enough water pressure. The company is a subsidiary of American Water, which operates in 14 states.

According to the lawsuit, the City of Charleston is set to pay the company $160,000 to cover fire hydrant fees for 2023.

West Virginia American Water declined to comment on the active litigation, American Water spokesman Ruben Rodriguez told McClatchy News on May 24.

In response to the fire at Cavender’s home, the company met with city officials and the Charleston Fire Department on May 9, according to a news release.

It plans to repair the three failed fire hydrants to have them working “as soon as possible” and will work to test additional hydrants for their efficacy, the release said.

The fire

Cavender’s home was listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the lawsuit.

It was the third home built in the Edgewood neighborhood in 1909, Hissam told McClatchy News.

The fire started on the deck of Cavender’s when his fire pit malfunctioned, according to Hissam.

When firefighters arrived minutes after 11:14 p.m., they were met with heavy smoke and planned to douse the fire immediately, the complaint says.

However, they found the fire hydrant closest to Cavender’s home didn’t have enough water pressure — and made the same discovery when they raced over to the next two closest fire hydrants, according to the complaint.

Firefighters inside the home had to retreat as a result, the complaint says.

“All Mr. Cavender, his neighbors, and firefighters could do was watch” as “the uncontrolled fire threatened the safety of neighbors and their homes,” the complaint says.

At some point, Duke went missing and ultimately ran back into the home “out of fear,” Hissam said.

Cavender and a friend went back into the burning house and searched for Duke for several minutes, but they couldn’t find him, according to Hissam.

After a few hours, the fire was doused when the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department and a fire department from McLaughlin Air National Guard Base came with water tankers, the complaint says.

Two days later, Cavender returned to the home and identified Duke’s remains, according to the complaint.

Duke was a source of enjoyment for not only Cavender and his children, but neighborhood families who’d see him jumping up and down behind the home’s fence with his tongue wagging, the complaint says.

After the destruction of Cavender’s home, American Water Company covered the three fire hydrants with trash bags, the complaint says.

Cavender is accusing the company of negligence.

It “owed a duty of care…to ensure the proper functioning of its and the city’s fire hydrants,” the complaint says.

With the lawsuit, he aims to hold the company accountable for the loss of his home, belongings and dog Duke.

He demands a trial by jury and seeks to recover damages.

Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin said although the firefighters “were in a position to put out the fire,” they “experienced a significant delay in being able to establish an adequate water source,” according to WCHS-TV.

She said this was “unacceptable” and that the city and fire department “will ensure West Virginia American Water takes all steps necessary to make sure hydrants across the city are in good working order,” the TV station reported.

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