boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Autopsies find alcohol, some cocaine, 2 officials say

New details on firefighters killed in blaze

One of two Boston firefighters who died fighting a fire in a Chinese restaurant in late August was legally intoxicated at the time, and the other had cocaine in his system, two officials said yesterday.

A source who was briefed by a person with knowledge of the autopsies of Paul J. Cahill and Warren J. Payne told the Globe that one firefighter had a blood-alcohol level higher than .08, the level at which someone is too drunk to drive legally in Massachusetts. The other firefighter had traces of cocaine in his system, the source said.

A government official briefed on the findings of the state medical examiner's office said Cahill registered a blood-alcohol level of .27 in the autopsy, which would have placed him at more than three times the legal limit, while Payne had cocaine in his system.

Neither official was specific about the amount of cocaine found in the firefighter.

The two officials were briefed on the autopsy results separately. They spoke separately to the Globe on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

The two veteran firefighters were the first members of the Boston Fire Department to die in the line of duty since 1994. Thousands of white-gloved firefighters from across the country attended their funerals last month, and Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John F. Kerry were among those who paid tribute to two men praised as heroes.

Steve MacDonald, spokesman for the Boston Fire Department, said the department had not received any reports on the district attorney's investigation.

"Right now, just because of the actions today, we just really want to really reach out to the two families of the two firefighters and let them know that we're still thinking of them and we're here for them," he said.

Yesterday afternoon, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Merita Hopkins barred WHDH-TV (Channel 7) from reporting on findings from the autopsies, saying autopsy results are exempt from disclosure under state public records law and can only be released with permission from next of kin. The station informed Hopkins that it would appeal the ruling to a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court today, the judge's clerk said.

The Boston firefighters' union sought the injunction from the judge after learning yesterday morning that the television station intended to report on the autopsy findings.

Paul Hynes, the lawyer for the union, said that the families of Cahill and Payne had not seen the autopsy results and that it would pain them to learn about the findings on television. He also said that the law is unambiguous and that WHDH had to have broken it to obtain the findings.

"There's no way Channel 7 could have accessed these reports legally," said Hynes, who characterized the issue as one about privacy rights. The state's public records law says that only spouses and next of kin, agencies investigating a death, and parties in civil court cases are legally entitled to obtain autopsy reports. Even then, their release is subject to the medical examiner's discretion.

The lawyer for the television station, Jordana B. Glasgow, countered that Channel 7 reporters learned about the findings from confidential sources and had broken no laws. She said that an injunction would be an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of the press. "It's not a privacy case," she said. "It's a prior restraint case."

Prior restraint refers to a government ban on publication or broadcasting before it takes place. Requests for such bans are rarely granted except when they relate to matters of national security. Perhaps the most famous prior restraint case in US history was the Pentagon Papers case, in which the Nixon administration sought unsuccessfully to block the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing excerpts of a top-secret archive on the history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the end, Hopkins sided with the firefighters' union, agreeing that the records were confidential and could not have been obtained legally. "I reject the prior restraint argument," she said. "Even if it was judged a prior restraint on free speech, it's justified in this case."

Neither Hynes nor the firefighter's union president, Edward Kelly, would comment after the hearing.

Cahill, 55, and Payne, 53, were among the first firefighters to enter the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant on Centre Street in West Roxbury on Aug. 29. Cahill was on the lead end of a fire hose, heading into the kitchen, and Payne, who was responsible for helping with a preliminary search for victims, was in the kitchen, when the roof in the kitchen exploded downward, fire officials have said. Payne was killed instantly in a massive fireball. Cahill probably died from either a heart attack or suffocation, they said.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said the office routinely investigates all deaths in fires, with the Boston police and Fire Department. Wark declined to discuss the autopsy results, citing their confidentiality.

A woman who answered at the phone number listed for Florence Payne, mother of Warren Payne, and identified herself as Mrs. Payne declined to comment on either the autopsy results or the court ruling.

Anne Cahill, the wife of Paul Cahill, could not be reached for comment. WCVB-TV reported last night that she said: "I hope this isn't true. My husband really died a hero."

Unlike the Police Department, which conducts mandatory random drug testing on officers once a year, the Fire Department only tests firefighters when there is a reason, said MacDonald. For instance, if a supervisor believes a firefighter is under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on duty, the supervisor can order a test. The firefighter would be picked up immediately from his district station and transported to a clinic. The results are then transmitted to headquarters, said MacDonald.

MacDonald said he could not determine last night whether Cahill and Payne had been tested.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, a blood alcohol content of .10 and higher could lead to wide-ranging impairment, including poor coordination, reduced reaction time, and a reduced ability to detect danger.

Maria Cramer, Donovan Slack, and John C. Drake of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent Marc Robins contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES