By Mac Daniel, Boston Globe Staff | May 5, 2004
Firefighters in Brookline and around the region yesterday mourned Irwin Gross, who died of injuries after falling off a firetruck Friday, as police said the investigation into the accident was focusing on whether Gross was wearing his seatbelt and whether the truck and the semienclosed cab he was riding in met safety standards. Gross, 58, of Natick, fell from the cab and struck his head on the pavement as the fire engine made a sharp right turn while pulling out of Brookline’s Station No. 6 on Washington Street en route to a reported gas leak. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where Brookline Fire Chief Peter E. Skerry Jr. said he “battled valiantly throughout the weekend” before dying at about 10 p.m. Monday. “Firefighter Gross ended his career the way he started it in 1968, responding to an emergency call,” Skerry said during a press conference yesterday in front of Gross’s base at Station No. 4 on Boylston Street. “Throughout his 36 years of service, he was a dedicated firefighter, committed to his profession and his community.” Gross, a father of two who was known as Buzz and had the option to retire several years ago, enjoyed the job and his colleagues enough to continue working, according to Skerry. “He wanted to keep on marching,” Skerry said. “He was the type of guy that people gravitated to, kind of low-key, always there with a quick remark,” the fire chief recalled. “And he was known for his pipe-smoking. Whenever you came in and smelled the scent of pipe smoke, you knew Buzz had been walking nearby.” Skerry declined to discuss the investigation into Gross’s death.Brookline police and members of the State Police accident reconstruction team are investigating, according to Brookline Police Captain John O’Leary, who would not say yesterday whether Gross had his seatbelt fastened at the time of the accident. Nonbinding standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association, based in Quincy, recommend that firefighters have their seatbelts fastened while traveling in firetrucks. O’Leary said Gross was seated in a rear-facing seat enclosed on all four sides, but with an open roof “like a convertible.”
A similar case, also involving the Brookline Fire Department, resulted in a lawsuit that ultimately prompted firetruck manufacturers to redesign the vehicles to prevent such accidents. Joseph M. Tynan Jr., a Brookline firefighter who was permanently disabled when he fell off a fire engine in Brookline 22 years ago, brought about the change through a lawsuit. He struck his head on the street, and after a subsequent seizure, he functioned at the level of a child, according to a family member. He died in 2002. In 1982, while standing behind the jump seat on Brookline’s Engine 4 on a routine run, Tynan fell off as it made a sharp left. In 1985, a Boston jury found the Wisconsin fire engine manufacturer liable for Tynan’s injury, and the insurance company settled for $4.8 million. The settlement remains the largest recovery for a firefighter injured in the line of duty, according to Tynan’s lawyer, Neil Rossman. The verdict’s impact reached beyond Brookline. Within a year, fire engines were redesigned. Instead of standing on the outside of the engines while riding to calls, firefighters started riding in enclosed cabs with safety belts. According to statistics compiled by Rita Fahy at the National Fire Protection Association, about 50 firefighters died nationwide after falling from apparatus between 1977 and 2003. However, the number of deaths dropped significantly after 1986, according to the association, with only 11 such deaths reported since 1987. Gross’s death is the first involving a firefighter falling from apparatus reported to the association this year. Just one was reported in 2003, and the previous such fatality was in 1999, involving a firefighter who fell from a vehicle that predated the new standards, Fahy said.