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Firefighters Now Confused

Last week, it was the police who were confused. This week, it’s the firefighters.

In the aftermath of a tragic fire that killed three Richmond children, the Richmond Fire Department is having trouble finding a coherent response.

According to firefighter Will Bachman and Captain Laura Barnaby (Channel 5 interview and San Francisco Chronicle story), extra staffing and extra equipment could have made the difference and prevented the deaths. However, Battalion Chief Jim Fajardo (acting chief while Michael Banks is out of town) disagreed, telling the City Council in no uncertain terms that if four companies and a ladder truck had all arrived at the same time, it would have made no difference in the outcome due to the fully involved nature of the fire and the accessibility of the residence.

Here is how Barnaby was quoted in the Chronicle:

But with only three firefighters on the scene before reinforcements arrived, and a shortage of staff in the department, resources were stretched thin just to beat back a blaze that reached at least 1,200 degrees, Capt. Laura Barnaby said. "We're flying by the skin of our teeth," Barnaby said. "This is the fire we've been dreading, where maybe an extra company or extra staffing on each rig could have made a difference." Thermal imaging devices -- to find people through the smoke by detecting body heat -- proved useless because of the strength of the blaze, Bachman said. A fire captain ultimately found the children by feel after making his way to the second floor, he said. "Had we had just one more person on the engine company, that person could have been doing their best to hit upstairs," Bachman said. "Maybe that would have made the difference."

Firefighters have a long practice of turning tragedies into self-serving complaints about City resource allocation. It reminds me of the time they brought a women severely disfigured by fire and paraded her around the City Council Chamber as part of a lobbying effort to staunch layoffs during the City’s financial crisis.

The Fire Department was also confused about smoke alarms. According to an article in yesterday’s West County Times, based on information from Fajardo, there were no smoke detectors in the home. However, by the end of the day, Fajardo had reversed himself and stated that there were, in fact, four smoke alarms in the home. When the fire department has trouble counting smoke alarms, we should be concerned. What is apparently yet unknown is whether or not they were functioning. The Fire Department has apparently concluded that they were functioning (based on an interview with the children’s mother who stated she could “see the green light” on the alarms). Assuming they were functional, based on this high-tech investigation, one wonders in a fire of this magnitude why four screeching smoke alarms apparently were of no consequence in causing a better outcome.

Perhaps the smoke alarm mystery and the speculative dispute over adequate fire department resources will never be sorted out, but there is one set of facts that is indisputable. In 1997, the City Council adopted Chapter 6.40 to the Richmond Municipal Code that required periodic inspection of every rental dwelling unit in the City. The purpose was to ensure that Richmond renters had safe and functional living space. Through a half-dozen city managers, the City has never fully enforced it, and in recent years, it was simply ignored. See Richmond Ignores its Rental Unit Inspection Ordinance, May 4, 2005.

On August 5, 2005, after two years of complaints from landlords about too much regulation and the accompanying fees (even though it wasn’t being enforced) the City Council passed a watered down version that allowed voluntary self-inspections under certain circumstances. Nine months later, on April 18, 2006, implementation of the amended version of the Residential Dwelling Unit Inspection Ordinance was again on the City Council agenda, placed there by Vice-Mayor Viramontes wondering why nothing was happening and directing staff to get on with implementing the ordinance. According to the staff report, inspections were supposed to start in May, 2006.

That, apparently, has proven not to be accurate. In a memo dated June 6, 2006, the city manager advised the City Council that inspection notices will go out around June 20. There was no indication of when inspections will actually start, and there have been none conducted to date. The City of Richmond has never been distinguished by a sense of urgency.

Finally, it appears that this particular rented dwelling unit would not have been inspected anyway, because it is listed in property tax records as being owner-occupied. Not only that, the owner has not filed for a business license as a rental property owner as required by Richmond Municipal Code Chapter 7.04. Because of violations of the law by the landlord, the dwelling unit would have slipped under the inspection radar.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to prevent the next fire-related disaster.

Several media stories follow.

 House where children died had fire detectors
Posted on Wed, Jun. 07, 2006


The house where three children died in a fatal fire last week contained four smoke detectors, Richmond fire officials said Tuesday, contrary to their earlier report that there were none.

Battalion Chief Jim Fajardo said Monday that Richmond Fire Department investigators found no smoke detectors in the View Drive house that was gutted by a two-alarm fire June 2, which could have factored into the deaths of children trapped in an upstairs bedroom.

But on Tuesday, Fajardo said he has since learned that the house was properly outfitted with the devices. Witnesses saw a green light shining on at least one of the detectors, Fajardo said, suggesting that it worked.

The fire started in the kitchen about 5:30 p.m. and quickly gutted the two-story condominium. Firefighters retrieved three children who hid beneath a blanket in an upstairs bedroom: 9-year-old Devieonne Portis, 4-year-old Jeremiah Cradle and 2-year-old Isys Cradle.

All three later died at the hospital from injuries caused by smoke inhalation.

The parents were not home at the time, and the children's grandmother was watching them. Authorities are unsure whether she was inside or outside when the fire was noticed.

The department is still trying to learn how the fire started, and a final report will likely not be ready for a few weeks, Fajardo said.

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com.

Mother returns to scene of fatal Richmond fire

Posted on Sat, Jun. 03, 2006


The day had been set aside for a festive family outing.

Instead, on Saturday Candace Culpepper returned to the blackened scene of the house fire that claimed the lives of her three young children.

Breaking into tears, she slowly walked around the soggy, soot-coated upstairs bedroom in which firefighters found the near-lifeless trio under a blanket Friday night.

As the blaze raged downstairs and smoke swirled around them, Devieonne Portis, 9, Jeremiah Cradle, 4, and Isys Cradle, 2, apparently had huddled under the blanket, unable to escape.

Devieonne had always looked after her siblings and had probably gathered them together in their time of peril, said Culpepper. "She was like a mini-me -- a second mother."

That Devieonne had helped her brother and sister until the end -- until smoke overwhelmed them -- provided some solace, family members said. It was inspiring to know that such bravery and selflessness existed in a girl who delighted in singing, dancing and whistling.

Jeremiah delighted in cars.

Candace and her husband, Isaac Cradle, who were at work when the fire began, had planned to take him to see the new animated movie "Cars." And the couple was going to take all the children to an antique car show in Pleasanton on Saturday.

"(Jeremiah) knew he was going" to the car show, Culpepper said. "It was all he kept asking about."

Isys, the youngest of the three, although just getting started in life, was showing great promise, Culpepper said. With motherly pride she noted that Isys even had potty-trained herself.

"My 2-year-old was just really, really smart," Culpepper said.

All three children died from smoke inhalation, the Contra Costa County coroner's office said Saturday.

Meanwhile, Culpepper and other family members salvaged possessions and mementos from the charred remains of the two-story townhouse the family had rented for almost two years.

Aside from a few photographs of Jeremiah at school, the fire spared little. Mostly, the family was struggling to be content with memories and the saving grace that the children had comforted each other.

"Their mother got a lot of relief from that, that they were all together," said Carolyn Cradle, Culpepper's mother-in-law.

Neighbor Archie Linville said he didn't know the family well but could tell from the way that the children played together outside that they were close.

"They were happy kids, and their parents (were) perfect," Linville said. "This is a shocker."

The 5:35 p.m. fire in the 900 block of View Drive began in the kitchen but what sparked the blaze remained under investigation Saturday, Richmond Fire Department Chief Michael Banks.

"That's what we're trying to sort through," Banks said.

The fire destroyed the kitchen, living room and dining room downstairs. Upstairs, flames or heat burned and blistered paint on the walls and coated almost everything in soot.

Jeremiah's bedroom, where the children had sought refuge, was the least damaged. The side of the bedroom door facing the hallway had burned black, but the other side appeared undamaged.

Inside the bedroom, children's clothing and toys were strewn on the floor. Against one wall was a twin mattress and box spring, bare of bedding. Amid the belongings on the floor was one of Jeremiah's prized possessions, one of his many toy cars: a red Volkswagen Beetle.

At the time of the fire, the only other person believed to have been at the townhouse was Culpepper's mother, Joy Wolf, who was baby-sitting the three children.

Wolf, who was outside the house when firefighters arrived, was taken to a hospital and treated for smoke inhalation. She had not yet provided fire department investigators with useful information Saturday.

"So far, she hasn't been able to tell us much," Banks said. "She's pretty distraught and emotionally traumatized."

Linville said Wolf appeared disoriented when, seeing smoke pouring from the townhouse next door, he dashed outside and found her standing in a patio just in front of the burning building.

"I asked where the kids were at," Linville said. "She wouldn't talk to me, like she was in shock."

By then, flames and smoke were billowing from the front door, preventing anyone from entering.

Linville said he considered trying to enter through a back window. But without knowing if the children were inside, he wasn't certain it was a risk he should take.

"The fire was raging out of control."

Reach Dogen Hannah at 925-945-4794 or dhannah@cctimes.com.

Kids' deaths haunt firefighters
'What if' questions dominate thoughts of responders to deadly blaze a day later

- John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

A day after a fire raged through a Richmond townhouse, killing three young children, firefighter Will Bachman looked through the emptiness where a window had been, wondering if things could have been different.

"If we had known they were in here, we could have put a ladder up," he said, gazing out from the second-story back bedroom where the children had huddled under a blanket before succumbing to the smoke. "Would that have made a difference? I don't know."

Moments later, he was more strident.

"If we had any idea at all -- Grandma, a neighbor, a kid screaming out the window -- this isn't how it would've been," Bachman said, standing over waterlogged Scooby-Doo bedding on the floor. "All we had was speculation that there might have been (children in the home), and then to find three ..." His voice trailed off.

"It's frustrating," he said. "Frustrating."

Bachman was one of three firefighters from the Richmond Fire Department to first reach 908 View Drive as flames engulfed the Hilltop neighborhood townhouse Friday. The three siblings were at home with their grandmother when authorities were alerted to the fire at 5:35 p.m.

The flames scorched the outside of the bedroom door where the children had huddled but did not enter the room, where on Saturday a pair of silver Spiderman sneakers hung unharmed in a shoe rack on the back of the door.

Devieonne Portis, 9, Jerimiah Cradle, 4, and Isis Cradle, 2, died of smoke inhalation, a coroner's deputy said. That bedroom was one of two rooms left relatively unscathed in a two-alarm fire that burned so hot it melted aluminum window frames and glass panes.

The children's grandmother was taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, fire officials said. She was "distraught and emotionally traumatized," said Fire Chief Michael Banks.

Fire department investigators were still trying Saturday to determine what caused the blaze, but Banks said it started in the kitchen. Bachman said he and his crew, who were nearby on another call, arrived minutes later to find flames and smoke pouring out windows and doors.

A woman who stumbled from the home before they arrived -- apparently the grandmother -- was in shock, said next-door neighbor Archie Linville.

"She didn't say anything," said Linville, 50. "She didn't say her name, she didn't say, 'Can you help me?' She was paralyzed."

Linville said that at the time, he didn't know if there were children inside the building.

"I didn't hear no screams or nothing," Linville said. "It was like, what the hell is going on?"

The children's parents could not be reached for comment.

The dispatch report said there possibly were victims inside, and firefighters began battling the blaze and working their way into the building, Bachman said.

But with only three firefighters on the scene before reinforcements arrived, and a shortage of staff in the department, resources were stretched thin just to beat back a blaze that reached at least 1,200 degrees, Capt. Laura Barnaby said.

"We're flying by the skin of our teeth," Barnaby said. "This is the fire we've been dreading, where maybe an extra company or extra staffing on each rig could have made a difference."

Thermal imaging devices -- to find people through the smoke by detecting body heat -- proved useless because of the strength of the blaze, Bachman said. A fire captain ultimately found the children by feel after making his way to the second floor, he said.

"Had we had just one more person on the engine company, that person could have been doing their best to hit upstairs," Bachman said. "Maybe that would have made the difference."

Banks acknowledged that there had been a shortage of funds but said more money recently had become available.

In the clear light of Saturday, with the faint smell of smoke in the air, bunches of flowers and a balloon formed a makeshift memorial for the children by their front gate. A rocking horse and bicycles lay untouched on the patio. Two neighborhood boys stood looking at the charred home.

"They used to always say 'Hi' to me," Robert Bill, 12, said of the children who had lived a block away. "They were nice."

Bachman, who has been a firefighter since 1981, said this one would stick with him.

"Fifteen years from now, you remember calls like this," he said. "Personally, I just wanted to call home and hear my son's voice."

E-mail John Coté at jcote@sfchronicle.com.

 No detectors in deadly blaze
Posted on Tue, Jun. 06, 2006


Answers have not come quickly for investigators probing the house fire that killed three children Friday.

Richmond fire officials see where the blaze started and know why it spread but cannot say definitively how it started. A final report won't come for several days, Battalion Chief Jim Fajardo said Monday.

One thing they do know: The two-story condominium lacked smoke detectors.

"Having working smoke detectors is a key to a safe living environment, especially with children," Fajardo said, stepping gingerly through the soggy ashes of a child's bedroom. "What happened here was truly tragic."

The fire moved quickly, engulfing part of the lower floor and blocking the stairwell, the only obvious escape route for anyone upstairs at the 900 block rental on View Drive.

Firefighters found the children, 9-year-old Devieonne Portis, 4-year-old Jeremiah Cradle and 2-year-old Isys Cradle, under a blanket in an upstairs bedroom. They died later that evening of smoke-inhalation injuries.

Devieonne attended Shannon Elementary School in Pinole. Two psychologists went to the campus Monday to help classmates talk about her death, schools spokesman Paul Ehara said. Jeremiah attended preschool at Highland Elementary in Richmond.

Callers reported the fire at 5:38 p.m. Engine 68, which had been returning to the station from a nearby call, diverted to the new call and arrived in less than two minutes, fire officials said. Firefighters found a well-progressed blaze. They quickly learned that children were trapped inside.

The preliminary investigation suggests it started on the kitchen range, Fajardo said. Nuggets of melted aluminum cookware dotted it. The refrigerator beside it buckled in a way suggesting the fire came from the stove, he added.

Burn patterns in the ceiling, walls and cabinets show the fire burned through the kitchen, into the adjacent dining room and into the open stairwell. Flame, smoke and fire vapors collected there, pumping the second floor full of toxic, super-heated gas.

The second engine arrived at 5:44 p.m., and a ladder truck from a station on Carlson Boulevard in south Richmond arrived at 6:49 p.m., said Capt. Jim Russey, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 188.

"I don't know what state the kids were in. I understand the littlest one showed some signs of life when they brought her out," Russey said. "What can you say? I've been through those things, and it's hell."

Fire blackened much of the upper floor. The children hid in a bedroom at the end of a hall. The door was closed, Fajardo said. Soot streaked with condensation -- steam from the water used to extinguish the fire -- marked every surface in the room higher than 18 inches from the floor.

The air in those 18 inches, Fajardo said, would have reached several hundred degrees.

Investigators have not yet determined who else was in the house at the time of the fire, or whether the children knew what to do or where to go. The children's grandmother was baby-sitting them while their parents worked. Neighbors found her outside, trying to get in.

"An exit plan for the house, and the kids knowing the exit plan, is very important," Fajardo said, his boot sinking into ashy sludge in the upstairs hallway.

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com.