Multiple errors plagued firefighters' unsuccessful efforts to rescue a man from a burning house in Montgomery County last October, a county fire commission panel has concluded. But the report, released late yesterday, also concluded that the victim, James W. Schwab, 44, was dead when firefighters arrived.
Firefighters found Schwab's body in the ground-floor library of the ruined Aspen Hill house only after they had extinguished the early-morning fire last Oct. 2. Schwab's wife and two children escaped uninjured.
The report, prepared by a panel of fire officials from outside the county after a large public outcry, criticized firefighters from the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department for taking eight minutes to hook up water hoses after they arrived. It said they should have been better trained in the equipment they use and operations they perform, and that training programs should be reexamined.
James J. Snyder Jr., chairman of the county's Fire and Rescue Commission, refused to discuss the report because the fire is the subject of a civil suit.
George Herbold, president of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department, who said he was in Hawaii at the time of the fire, said he has not yet read the report and declined comment.
Schwab's widow, attorney Priscilla A. Schwab, also declined comment, saying she hadn't seen the report.
The report said a firefighter assigned to connect two hoses to a hydrant connected them improperly, and then turned on the water before the hoses were connected to the pump attached to the fire truck. The driver of the truck then did not properly engage the pump transmission, the report concluded.
The driver was not experienced with the operation of the pump, the report said, and "obviously became confused and required the aid of a fellow firefighter to correct the problem."
After the fire, several witnesses complained that firefighters at the time were arguing with each other rather than attempting a rescue or fighting the fire. The panel said firefighters denied these allegations, and it was unable to reach a conclusion.
The panel did not criticize the firefighters' decision to stay outside the burning house when the fire became intense. Panel members also found nothing wrong with the fact that firefighters drank coffee and ate doughnuts while Schwab's body was removed after the fire, a fact that had upset some neighbors who were watching.