Volusia County (FL) County fire officials called it a "freak accident" but state investigators said the death of Volusia County firefighter John Curry during a training exercise was a result of improperly trained firefighters and an unsafe workplace, a report released (see link on this page) shows.
The inquiry into Curry’s November 2007 death from a falling tree was done by the state’s Bureau of Fire Training & Standards.
The investigation found both Curry and other firefighters — new members of a unit within the fire department charged with battling forest fires and known as the Firewalkers — received an abridged version of training rather than the entire package required by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group and the Division of Forestry, the investigation states.
Curry and other new Firewalkers, who had never been on a tree-felling exercise, received some classroom instruction that day before heading out into the field. But the investigation found the classroom instruction time was cut in half — from four hours to two.
"This team did not utilize the entire training package created by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group," state investigators said. "Instead, they presented a much shorter version including the video and a short discussion period.
"The experienced members supervising the newer members (of the Firewalkers team) were not prepared for an unusual circumstance with fatal consequences."
The 30-year-old Curry was killed by a pine tree that landed on his back. The tree was more than 40 feet tall with a diameter of about 18 inches.
Curry had been assigned to be a swamper and another firefighter was the sawyer. The sawyer is assigned to cut and drop the tree, while the swamper is supposed to watch the top of the tree and tell the sawyer what direction it is leaning as it starts to fall.
Because of the way the sawyer made his cuts, the tree began turning counterclockwise, which caused it to move 135 degrees from the spot where it was supposed to land, the investigation shows. As that was happening, the training instructor was already running down the escape route, the report states.
Curry meanwhile, left the sawyer behind and began bolting down the escape route also, not realizing the tree was already falling in that direction.
"There was no one at the tree to assess the quality and accuracy of the sawyer’s cuts, assure the safety of sawyer and swamper, or prevent the victim from running down the escape route to his death," the investigators wrote.
By the time Curry reached the end of the escape route, the tree had already come crashing down on his back, the report states.
The state issued a notice of violation to county Fire Chief Jim Tauber. The notice is designed to allow Tauber and his department to remedy the violations that led to Curry’s death.
In a safety violations report dated March 12 that was attached to the investigative report, the state is requiring the county to provide training commensurate to each firefighter and supervisor’s task. Furthermore, the county is required to provide documentation showing that all Firewalkers completed the courses required for their job.
Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron said county officials had "thoroughly reviewed" the investigative report and would implement the recommendations. Byron said he could not comment on the training exercise or why procedures were not followed.
Geoff Bichler , an Orlando-based attorney representing Curry’s widow, Kristen, said he intends to file a wrongful death claim against the county.
"The only thing they (the county) gave the poor guy was a two-hour video and a chain saw," the attorney said. "The county clearly failed Mr. Curry in every way."