January 15, 2005
James Heenan died on March 24, 2001, of burns received fighting a house fire in West Deptford on Jan. 1, 2001.
Heenan fell through a floor into the basement where he was trapped by burning debris for at least 20 minutes. Almost three years later, the state Division of Fire Safety issued a 25-page report that said his fatal burns were primarily caused by steam created by a steady stream of water directed on him by fellow Verga firefighters who were trying to protect him.
The state report said three things contributed to Heenan’s fatal burns: The steady stream of water, which pushed the fire and super-heated gases back down on him; a failure to use the proper equipment, especially a thermal image camera and hand tools to test the floor’s stability; and the incident commander’s improper analysis of fire conditions, leading him to send Heenan and firefighter James Miller into the house directly over where the fire was blazing in the basement.
On Dec. 2, officials at Verga Fire Company received a second report of the incident — one that contradicts the state’s findings. Presented by Patrick J. McKinley Associates of Lafayette Hill, Pa., a firm hired by the fire company, the new report declares that the state’s conclusions about the primary factors causing Heenan’s death “are speculative and not supported by any physical evidence.” The McKinley report calls the state analysis “weak from a technical firefighting perspective,” saying that it “lacked the supportive information and documentation normally associated with such a sensitive report.” According to the McKinley report, the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University has presented scientific findings to the National Institute of Safety and Health disclosing the potential for serious firefighter injuries as a result of shell fabric used on specific turnout gear. McGinley challenged the concept that his fellow firefighters contributed to Heenan’s burns, again mentioning the NIOSH findings on the turnout gear fabric.
“For an investigative authority to advocate not protecting a firefighter who has fallen into a basement involved in fire with a water line is outrageous,” the report states. In addition, the McGinley report refutes the blame placed on the incident commander at the fire. “The incident commander made a series of decisions and opted for what appeared to be the safest and most efficient means of entry into the building,” acting on the belief that someone might be trapped inside. The McKinley report called the idea that use of a thermal imaging camera would have alerted firefighters of an impending floor collapse “simplistic” and noted that the state-issued thermal imaging camera had not been received at the time of the fire. “You cannot use what you do not have,” stated the report.
The McKinley report’s analysis also noted a delay in transporting Heenan for treatment once he had been rescued from the building. “It is significant the medical treatment of (Heenan) was materially delayed due to the failure to honor the fire chief’s request for a helicopter transport versus ambulance transport.” In contradicting the conclusions reached by the state Division of Fire Safety, the McKinley report calls the state’s logic and opinions faulty. “For the state to render such insensitive and caustic conclusions without supportive evidence is unreasonable and unprofessional,” he wrote. According to the McKinley analysis, the state has yet to make full use of lessons that might have been learned from the Verga tragedy. “The state had an opportunity to learn from the true cause of this tragedy and to share the lessons learned with firefighters throughout the state and the nation,” the McKinley report states. “The facts presented clearly do not support the conclusions rendered in the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety report.”
At Verga Fire Company, the McKinley analysis is welcomed cautiously. “We’re hoping the state will take a good look … and maybe we can sit down and discuss this,” said Verga Fire Chief Jeff Bilger, who questioned the validity of the state report. “After their three years of so-called investigation, there were still a lot of inconsistencies,” Bilger said on Friday. “It seems like the (Division of Fire Safety) report should help make sure this stuff doesn’t happen again, but this was a finger-pointing paper,” said Bilger. Verga’s lawyer, Thomas Ward of Woodbury, submitted the McKinley report to the state on Dec. 21 and asked that it be maintained on file as “the only credible report” on the fatal fire. On Friday afternoon, Jim Heenan’s widow, Patti, said she had read the McKinley report.
“The points are there,” she said, but she’s not sure which one is most relevant. “I don’t think the fire company did anything wrong,” she added. “I don’t think (the state) did the 100-percent investigation they could have done.” Mrs. Heenan is now an active member of Verga and is starting Firefighter One class. “Believe it or not, I want to be a fire investigator,” she stated. “I think I could have done a better investigation” than the Division of Fire Safety, she said. “I know there’s more there.”