Two separate settlements totaling $4.1 million for the families of two Buffalo firefighters who perished in an August 2009 fire at a Genesee Street building are expected to be approved by the Common Council in early April.
Survivors of the younger firefighter, Jonathan S. Croom, 34, are set to receive $3 million that will go to supporting the children he left behind. The family of Lt. Charles W. “Chip” McCarthy, 45, is to receive the balance, $1.1 million.
Croom was engaged to be married and the father of an infant daughter and a second child his fiancée was expecting. McCarthy was married and the father of three adult children.
The settlements also include health insurance coverage for Croom’s children – Johanna, 4, and Johnny, 3 – and guarantees from the city to implement safety procedures at fire scenes to try to prevent the same type of confusion that contributed to the deaths of the firefighters, according to attorneys representing the families.
McCarthy had gone back into the rambling building – which housed a deli, basement warehouse and apartments – believing that a victim was trapped in the basement, and he fell through the floor of the deli. Croom went back inside in a desperate effort to save McCarthy and also fell into the burning basement.
“Wrongful-death lawsuits are traditionally about money damages for surviving family members. Here, we went further and insisted on multiple safety procedures for firefighters in the future,” said Thomas H. Burton, attorney for the McCarthy family.
“To its credit, the city has implemented many of these procedures and agreed in writing to do so for others.”
John T. Loss, attorney for Croom’s children, said the settlement protects the firefighters’ children and other firefighters.
“Jonathan Croom was a hero firefighter, and his legacy will not only be protecting the financial future of his children, but the safety of his fellow firefighters,” Loss said.
Safety changes sought by the families of Croom and McCarthy include:
• Following the “two in, two out rule,” which means that firefighters do not enter or leave a burning structure without a partner.
• Having an accountability officer to keep track of firefighters entering and leaving “serious fires,” freeing the commander at the scene to maintain an overview of the entire situation.
• Making numerous equipment enhancements such as upgraded radios, new self-contained breathing apparatus and thermal cameras.
Lack of an accountability officer and failure to enforce the “two in, two out rule” were cited in the lawsuits. Burton said that those federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration work rules, adopted by New York State for the protection of first responders, were not adhered to. That allowed the families to sue, even though the job of firefighter has an assumption of risk.
Loss added that one of the most troubling aspects of the deaths was that the Fire Department had lacked a standard operating procedure for extinguishing basement fires. That is now in place.
“We hope that by training with uniform, written directions in fighting below-grade incidents, we avoid such a tragedy in the future,” Loss said. “The equipment enhancements with the radios will help to locate more quickly and accurately missing firefighters. Jonathan Croom was missing well over an hour.”
In a letter to City Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball, Burton stated:
“And while we cannot un-ring the bell for the tragedy which accompanied this incident, maybe things have now changed for the better for firefighters going forward. If we can at least accomplish that, it is a good thing for all.”
The proposed settlement packages were filed Monday with the City Clerk’s Office by the corporation counsel’s staff and are expected to be reviewed by the Council’s Claims Committee on March 27. The committee then will forward the proposals to the entire Council for action April 2.
After Council members take action, the settlements then go before State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia for his expected approval.
“The judge and his law clerk pushed these cases along and were instrumental in their resolution,” Loss said, adding that retired State Appellate Court Justice Jerome C. Gorski served as a mediator during the negotiations.
Loss and Burton also are continuing lawsuits against the owner of the building, Saleh K. Abdullah, for failing to properly maintain the structure in accordance with city building and fire codes.
Inadequate electrical lines inside the Super Speedy Deli overheated and ignited floor joists in the ceiling of the basement, causing the blaze, fire officials have said.