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Panel, commissioner clash on impairment in fire deaths

Report discounts role of drugs, alcohol in 2007 blaze

Email|Print| Text size + By Donovan Slack and John C. Drake
Globe Staff / February 22, 2008

One of the two firefighters who died in an August restaurant blaze in West Roxbury entered the burning kitchen with neither his face mask, which was found on a table, nor his radio, which was left behind at the fire station. When a grease-fueled fireball exploded from the ceiling, the firefighter tried to feel his way out along a hose, but the line led him deeper into the building.

This revelation about Firefighter Paul J. Cahill's death is contained in a controversial report written by a Boston Fire Department panel, composed entirely of union firefighters, which the city plans to release today.

The report has triggered an extraordinary exchange between the fire commissioner and the union over whether drug- and alcohol-impairment played a role in the death of the two firefighters on Aug. 29 inside the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant.

The panel's report does not address whether Cahill or Warren J. Payne was impaired by drugs or alcohol, saying panel members didn't have access to autopsies on the two men. News reports on the autopsies said they showed that Cahill was legally drunk and that Payne had traces of cocaine in his system.

The panel did, however, determine that drugs and alcohol played no role in the deaths.

"The board of inquiry could find no factual indications supporting that alcohol/drug impairment contributed to or caused these two firefighters" to perish, the report says.

That finding prompted Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser to dispatch a letter to the board yesterday that said, "I do not believe that there is evidence to dismiss possible impairment."

Fraser's letter said that two other firefighters with Cahill escaped from the kitchen, but that Cahill did not. "Was FF [Firefighter] Cahill impaired, which resulted in him not being able to egress from the building?" Fraser wrote. "Why was he not wearing his facepiece at this point? Could being under the influence of alcohol have contributed to FF Cahill's disorientation and decision not to wear his facepiece?"

The board of inquiry report was obtained by the Globe yesterday. A copy of Fraser's letter was also obtained by the Globe.

The 134-page report contains 60 recommendations, foremost among them a call for companies that install and clean kitchen exhaust systems in Massachusetts restaurants to be licensed and regulated. The panel urged passage of a state law assigning oversight of the kitchen-exhaust installation and cleaning industries to a government agency that would hold them accountable.

The board's investigation found that the fire was caused by a buildup of grease that had escaped from a hole in the kitchen's ventilation system.

The board of inquiry explained that it could not address whether the firefighters were impaired, because the results of autopsies on the two men were "not available to the board of inquiry." In October, two government officials with direct knowledge of the findings told the Globe that the autopsies found that Payne had traces of cocaine in his system and that Cahill's blood-alcohol content was 0.27, three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts.

State law requires that the district attorney approve the disclosure of autopsy reports. A spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Jake Wark, said last night that the office had never received a "formal request" from the board of inquiry for the autopsy results.

The Globe reported last month that city officials had misgivings about the thoroughness of the board of inquiry's investigation because it did not address the issue of impairment. The city's chief lawyer asked the board to extend its investigation to question supervisors and colleagues about the conditions of Cahill and Payne and to obtain the autopsy reports.

In its report, the board of inquiry appeared to address those concerns, saying it "did not intend to ignore and or evade the issue of alcohol/drug impairment during the course of its investigation, but sought to seek factual indications that supported impairment as one of the causal factors in the fatalities."

The board's report describes the actions of Cahill and Payne during the harrowing minutes they were involved in fighting the fire.

Firefighters arrived at the Tai Ho restaurant on Centre Street at 9:08 p.m. Cahill rushed through the front door with the lead hose and into the kitchen. Payne began searching the restaurant for people.

In the kitchen ceiling, the fire, which had been burning long before firefighters arrived, was starving for oxygen.

Cahill aimed his fire hose up at the ceiling, where flames could be seen next to the exhaust system over the stove. The force of the water stream dislodged ceiling tiles in the kitchen and the neighboring dining room, the report says.

Within seconds, a bank of heavy smoke dropped from the ceiling to within inches of the floor. Suddenly the fire burst like a giant blow torch through a hole where a tile had been in the dining room ceiling. The blaze descended on Payne and burst out the front windows of the restaurant.

Payne was alone in that section of the dining room. An emergency distress signal sounded from his portable radio; dispatchers attempted to contact him but received no response.

One firefighter, an officer, ran into the kitchen and yelled to Cahill and another firefighter, "Get out! Get out!"

The officer and the other man ran to the door and escaped. Meanwhile, Cahill shut off his hose and attempted to follow it toward the front door. But it was twisted, and he moved deeper into the inferno, where he succumbed to smoke inhalation.

The firefighters' bodies were discovered between 9:21 and 9:26. Investigators later found an air mask, with Cahill's name faintly visible, resting on a table in the restaurant.

As to the cause of the fire, the report says grease and combustible gases escaped from the exhaust system into the ceiling through a gap 12 inches long and 1 inch wide in a metal exhaust duct.

Investigators determined that the system was rusty, thick with grease, and had not been installed or maintained in compliance with state fire codes, the report says. The state of the system "directly led to the fire and the products of combustion escaping from the containment area."

State fire codes require quarterly inspections of kitchen exhaust systems and the cleanup of any grease buildup found. The codes charge restaurant owners with the ultimate responsibility of making sure it's done right.

The board of inquiry concluded that companies that install and clean the ducts should be licensed and regulated by a government agency.

The state fire marshal's office regulates and certifies individuals and companies that install fire suppression equipment in restaurant cooking ventilation systems, such as alarms and sprinklers, but not those who install and clean the systems.

Grease-cleaning industry specialists yesterday applauded the board's recommendation for a state law mandating licensing and regulation of the companies.

"It makes a lot of sense," said Steven Schlesinger, co-owner of Tri State Fire Protection and Tri State Hood & Duct, which cleans restaurants in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. "We're huge proponents. You've got to do this right."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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