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N.C. fire instructor sues simulation company over live burn injuries

Demetrius Massey suffered burns over 11% of his body after an explosion inside the Haywood Community College training tower


The training tower at Haywood Community College Public Safety Training Facility.

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By Aarik Long
The Mountaineer

CLYDE, N.C. — Nearly 18 months ago, an explosion at the Haywood Community College fire and rescue training tower injured an instructor.

Now, that instructor has filed a civil lawsuit against the company behind the equipment in the building.

The three-story burn tower simulates training exercises for firefighters, including real fires they have to put out. It is part of the college’s Public Safety Training Facility.

Demetrius Massey, the instructor injured in the explosion, is suing Fireblast and two of the company’s employees responsible for maintenance of the equipment.

Massey had worked for HCC for 15 years as the Fire and Rescue Training Coordinator. Two months prior to the explosion, he had been promoted to Public Safety Facilities Coordinator.

Massey suffered first- and second-degree burns over 11% of his body, as well as “significant and permanent scarring and disfigurement,” serious emotional distress and “loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life,” according to the lawsuit.

Massey also lost a large amount of income and saw an increase to his expenses.

“Plaintiff has undergone numerous surgical procedures, incurred substantial medical expenses, lost substantial income and will continue to incur medical expenses and loss of income for the remainder of his life,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges the explosion was the latest in the chain of mishaps with the burn tower’s equipment system due to Fireblast’s negligence.

“Beginning in 2018, HCC personnel experienced several instances and signs of unexpected and unanticipated operations of the systems within the burn building — all of which were timely reported to Fireblast,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit claims those previous issues included everything from exhaust fan overloads to build-ups of unburnt propane.

Besides the issues at HCC’s burn tower, the lawsuit also alleges that Fireblast knew of serious accidents with their safety training systems in other states — accidents caused by system failures similar to the ones that took place at HCC. Those accidents included one in New York that resulted in hearing loss and one in Washington that resulted in the loss of an eye, according to the suit.


Fireblast CEO Rick Egelin stated that his company “grew too fast” with their sales far exceeding their ability to meet manufacturing and delivery requirements, in a 2011 interview.
HCC ceased using the training tower for live-burn exercises following the accident. The college was waiting on a thorough investigation and analysis of what went wrong before resuming real fire simulations.

The college hopes to be able to return to full use this spring with any and all issues corrected.

“We look forward to serving the needs of our community partners to support their training needs,” HCC Public Information Officer Michelle Harris said.

What happened?

The following chain of events during a live-burn training exercise at HCC on Aug. 5, 2022, were outlined in the lawsuit.

“During this training exercise, a sudden and massive explosion occurred without warning, and fire escaped the kitchen burn room, traveled into the adjacent living room, and exited the Burn Building with such force that it caused serious injury to Massey as he stood on an outside stairwell,” the lawsuit alleges.

Massey was “standing well outside the active training area,” according to the suit.

The lawsuit alleges the explosion was caused by a “dangerous build-up and ignition of unburned propane and the failure of the industrial computer to shut down the burn when it detected an unburned gas spike,” as well as other failures in the Fireblast system.

Those additional failures included damaged propane lines, significant corrosion in the system, severe carbon build-up throughout the system, numerous malfunctioning gauges and electrical indicators, malfunctioning flow control units, malfunctioning emergency shutdown systems, malfunctioning burners, a malfunctioning and deteriorated main valve that allowed a significant excess of pressure into the system and a main regulator cap that had been damaged due to being removed with an incorrect tool.

The complaint goes on to state that the build-up and eventual ignition were the direct result of “Fireblast’s failure to detect and/or remedy, during its annual maintenance and interim visits to the Burn Building,” as well as Fireblast’s failure to install two gas detecting sensors and a failure to properly position the one gas sensor they did install.

It also alleges that Fireblast failed to update the hardware and operating system of the programmable logic computer, the brain of the whole operation. Only Fireblast was allowed to do those updates under the maintenance contract. The lack of an update allegedly kept the system from performing its emergency automatic shutdown function.

When the system was initially installed, Fireblast held three operational training sessions, which Massey attended all of. The lawsuit alleges that during these training sessions, there was no mention of the need for personal protective equipment.

It also states that the two instructors, the two other defendants named in the case, didn’t direct any trainees to use any such equipment or use any such equipment themselves.

Massey is being represented by a team of attorneys including Bradford Searson of Asheville, Sheila Canavan of Waynesville and Steven Osber and Jason Adamsky of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The complaint requests a jury trial in the matter.

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