The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fire hydrants weren’t working, suit says. So he watched his home burn.

Firefighters work to put out a fire at a home in Charleston, W. Va.
Firefighters watch as a fire destroys Ric Cavender's house in Charleston, W.Va. (Courtesy of WCHS)
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Ric Cavender called 911 almost as soon as his propane fire pit burst into flames around 11 p.m. on May 5. Firefighters were dispatched to Cavender’s house in Charleston, W.Va., and arrived five minutes later. Preparing to douse the fire, they tapped the closest hydrant but got no water. They tried another — nothing. Then a third — nothing still.

So Cavender watched as the flames destroyed his home and killed his dog, a four-year-old brindle boxer named Duke, in what his lawyer described as “a devastating personal experience.”

Now, Cavender, 40, is suing West Virginia American Water, the water utility that serves West Virginia’s capital of some 47,000 residents. In a lawsuit filed Monday in Kanawha County Circuit Court, he alleges that American Water was negligent when it did not ensure there was strong enough water pressure to serve the hydrants. His lawyer, Mike Hissam, told The Washington Post that those hydrants still don’t work, endangering an unknown number of residents.

“People are scared to death up there,” Hissam said.

In a statement released four days after the fire, the company said the three hydrants had last passed inspection in July. After the fire, it pulled them out of service, met with city officials to talk about “concerns related to fire hydrants” and agreed to work with the fire department to find any others that might “produce insufficient flow.” American Water declined to comment Wednesday on Cavender’s allegations and did not respond to a question about whether the hydrants had been fixed.

“West Virginia American Water is committed to working alongside the City of Charleston and the Charleston Fire Department to remedy any issues with the three fire hydrants of concern and have them back into service as soon as possible,” the company said in the statement.

On May 5, Cavender was entertaining friends, Hissam said. That night, he turned on his propane-fueled fire pit on his back deck for the first time of the season. After letting it run for about 1½ hours, he called it a night and shut it off. The fire pit made a “weird click” and “wasn’t acting right,” Hissam said.

“Next thing he knew, it was engulfed in flames,” he added.

Cavender, the executive director of a nonprofit who moonlights as a school board member, snatched his fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work, Hissam said. He called 911, and firefighters showed up about five minutes later prepared to save his house, only to scramble around the neighborhood in a futile search for a hydrant that worked, the suit states. Eventually, a nearby volunteer fire department and Air National Guard firefighters helped by supplying their Charleston counterparts with water tankers.

“That relief came too late for Mr. Cavender,” the suit alleges. “By that time, the heavy smoke had turned into an uncontrollable blaze.”

As Cavender and others watched his house turn into an inferno, Duke slipped a friend’s grasp and darted back inside. Cavender and a friend gave chase. Once inside, they repeatedly yelled the dog’s name and searched the house until the smoke and flames forced them to retreat.

“It was chaos,” Hissam said.

Hours later, firefighters tamed the blaze, which has forced Cavender to stay at a hotel while scrambling to find a place to rent.

Several days after the fire, workers with a debris removal company called Cavender to tell him they’d found Duke’s remains, which Cavender later identified. He and his two sons are wrecked by the death of their dog, who was also beloved by neighbors, Hissam said.

“Neighborhood families enjoyed seeing Duke’s wagging tongue as he hopped up and down on his hind legs at the fence as they walked by,” the suit states.

A day after the fire, Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin commended the Charleston Fire Department for responding with “urgency and purpose” while decrying their hydrant-caused hindrance as unacceptable, WCHS reported.

“Rest assured, the City and our Fire Department will ensure West Virginia American Water takes all steps necessary to make sure hydrants across the city are in good working order. Doing so is paramount to public safety and the safety of our firefighters,” Goodwin said, according to WSAZ.

American Water wrapped the nonfunctional hydrants in plastic garbage bags after the fire and has started digging up city streets to handle a problem “that should have been fixed a long time ago,” Hissam said. The city grants the company a monopoly and will pay $160,000 this year to provide water to residents, the suit states, and in exchange, the company must do so reliably.

“That’s the deal,” Hissam said.