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‘Death trap': Families of fallen Baltimore firefighters sue city over abandoned buildings

Attorney for one of the families said the city neglected abandoned properties leading firefighters to believe protections were in place

By Madeleine O’Neill
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The families of the three Baltimore firefighters who died in a 2022 blaze at a vacant rowhouse on Stricker Street have filed a federal lawsuit against the city claiming that years of intentional neglect preceded the tragedy.

The sweeping lawsuit alleges the city failed to mark dangerous abandoned properties but let firefighters believe that there were protections in place to keep them out of harm’s way.

[RELATED: ‘What is the holdup?': Survivor of Baltimore tragedy wants abandoned buildings gone]

“The city’s deliberate indifference to the death trap it created is egregious and shocks the conscience,” wrote Allen Honick, one of the lawyers for the families, in the lawsuit.

The fire and subsequent collapse of 205 S. Stricker St. killed Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo. Firefighter/EMT John McMaster also was seriously injured when the rowhouse, which had been the site of several previous fires, collapsed on the crew after they went inside to control the flames.

The blaze was one of the deadliest for fire responders in the city’s history and led to the abrupt resignation of Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford after a scathing report found the city lacked policies on vacant buildings at the time of the fire.

[RELATED: Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford resigns following release of internal report about LODD fire]

The new lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, arrives more than a year after the firefighters’ families filed notice that they planned to sue the city.

The plaintiffs in the case are Rachel and Paisley Butrim, Paul Butrim’s widow and daughter; Gloria Lacayo, Kenny Lacayo’s mother; Brandon Sadler, Kelsey Sadler’s widower; Jerry Norman, Kelsey Sadler’s father; Lacey Marino, representing Sadler’s estate; and McMaster, the injured firefighter.

The one-count complaint claims the city violated the firefighters’ constitutional rights by putting them in danger.

The lawyers for the families said the plaintiffs look forward to their day in court and declined to comment further.

In a statement, the city’s Law Department said it had not yet received the complaint.

“Given this is the subject of active litigation, we will reserve comment for the appropriate judicial forum,” the department said in the statement.

The lawsuit also attempts to link the Stricker Street fire with a deal between a Baltimore nonprofit and city housing officials that was the subject of a 2021 report by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.

The report found that the nonprofit asked the city to withhold certain properties from its annual public tax sale and to instead place them in a separate bulk tax sale for developers. The lawsuit alleges 205 S. Stricker St. was one of those properties.

The nonprofit then bought tax sale certificates for some of those properties on behalf of developers or recommended to the city Department of Housing and Community Development which developers should be awarded the certificates, the report found. Developers allegedly were charged a fee for the nonprofit’s services.

The Inspector General’s report does not name the nonprofit, but the organization was identified as the Southwest Partnership by its former executive director.

The firefighters’ lawsuit claims the agreement allowed 205 S. Stricker St. to sit vacant for years by having the property repeatedly pulled off public tax sale lists; however, the complaint does not provide evidence for the claim. The rowhouse appeared on the public tax sale list in 2019, public records show.

The tax sale deal with Southwest Partnership ended in 2020, when the Comptroller’s Department of Real Estate intervened because the nonprofit’s vetting program was not authorized by the city, according to the Inspector General’s report. City housing officials drafted a memorandum of understanding that would have given the nonprofit priority access to tax sale certificates, but the agreement was never executed because the mayor’s office intervened.

In a response to the Inspector General’s report, the chief of staff to then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young wrote that the actions described in the report “have a strong appearance of impropriety and inequity, and the administration was shocked to learn of this complaint.” The incident coincided with the unexplained firing of the housing commissioner at the time.

Leaders of the Southwest Partnership did not respond to requests for comment.

The firefighters’ lawsuit argues that the lack of a city policy for marking unsafe buildings and the longstanding neglect of vacant houses, including those that fell under the tax sale scheme, effectively formed a “city-created death trap” for the crew that responded to the Stricker Street blaze.

The lawsuit does not name a specific amount of damages but says the families will seek at least $75,000.

A Baltimore Sun investigation found the city’s vacant properties burn at twice the national rate, but gaps in record-keeping limited what firefighters know before going inside burning structures. The Stricker Street property also caught fire in 2015 and partially collapsed, injuring three firefighters, and again in 2016, but the building was not marked as unsafe when the crew arrived on Jan. 24, 2022.

There are more than 13,000 vacant buildings across Baltimore.

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The lawsuit claims the city intentionally kept firefighters in the dark about the end of a program called Code X-Ray, which involved tagging unstable buildings with placards displaying a large “X.”

“The city knew that no firefighter would willingly continue their employment if they knew they could be unknowingly sent into structurally compromised condemned homes,” Honick wrote in the complaint.

The program ended in 2012, in part because residents complained that the X signage on a large number of houses could hurt neighborhoods’ reputations, fire officials said.

The department instead tracked unsafe vacant houses in a computer-aided dispatch system in an inconsistent way that led to underreporting and misclassification of fires in vacant buildings, according to the report that led to Ford’s resignation.

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