Cook column: After-effects of fire will be felt a long time
The fat envelope from the Medical Examiner’s Office came in the mail on Thursday, June 12. As I opened it, I remembered filing a public records request for final autopsy reports soon after the March 7 fire that killed two Salisbury firefighters. It was a routine request for a newspaper to file in the aftermath of such an event.
The reports were in that envelope.
The story that appeared in the Post the next day about the findings pained the firefighters’ families. Every story about the events of that horrible day and the investigation cuts them like a knife. The whole city, in fact, will feel the aftereffects of this fire for a long time.
Once the autopsy story hit our Web site, it immediately drew angry protests from people who thought we should have waited to let the families read the medical examiner’s reports first. A few also said we shared too much personal information about the victims.
I want to respond to those concerns.
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As I read the autopsy reports that Thursday afternoon, I knew right away that we would not publish most of what they contained. The information was detailed and graphic.
The line in the reports that struck me most, though, was not about the autopsies. It was a handwritten summary of circumstances surrounding the firefighters’ deaths. “Decedent was fighting fire when the hose upon which he and two other firefighters were manning burned in two.”
So, I thought, it was the hose.
Since the moment we learned of the firefighters’ deaths, the Post has asked and wondered and asked again how exactly this happened. How did these men become trapped in the fire? The fire chief, city manager and outside investigators have never been specific about that.
We’d heard a firefighter’s voice on the scanner that day, saying he was losing water pressure. This was the first word we’d had about why.
That was the focus of our story the next day, the lost water pressure and the possibly burned hose. Scores of firefighters on the scene already knew about the lack of water, and probably much more.
When reporter Mark Wineka called Fire Chief Bob Parnell to comment, Parnell disputed the notion that the hose burned in two. He said some kind of mechanical failure took place.
He had not received a copy of the autopsy reports yet.
Because of the protectiveness he has shown for them, I knew Parnell would contact the families and warn them about the story.
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Tracy Isler called the Post a short time later. The widow of Victor Isler, she was upset that the Post had received the results before the families had. She considered it an invasion of privacy. She asked in strong terms that we not publish the story until the families had had a chance to read them. “Don’t you think we’ve been through enough?” she said.
I read Mark’s story and talked to other editors and reporters on duty. To print or not to print. They seemed glad that I was the one making the decision, not them.
Reporter Kathy Chaffin said that since she’d fought off cancer, she was less concerned about being first with a news story. She would wait.
Wise counsel. But how long would we be expected to wait? Once the families read the reports, they probably would object even more strongly to a story for fear that we’d go into too much detail.
Investigating a huge fire like this is a process ó a government process ó and we feel a duty to report each painful step along the way. Whenever this story ran, it was going to affect the families.
I e-mailed Tracy Isler the story and, after scanning it in, sent her the eight-page autopsy report on her husband. She could read the report and our story before we went to press.
I did not hear from her again. I then sent another e-mail letting her know we were going ahead with the story.
I hoped Parnell had been able to contact the Monroes so they’d know the story was coming. I’ve had to make many decisions as editor that required setting aside my emotions and doing my job. This one shook me more than any other. As it should.
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A few people objected to our description of Victor Isler’s tattoos. He had been an EMT in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and two tattoos and a bracelet he wore paid tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives as a result of the terrorist attacks.
Considering the passion this community has shown for honoring Monroe and Isler, that seemed like a fitting, poignant way to end the story. Many people will honor the memory of these two brave men for a long, long time.
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Medical examiners don’t dissect fire hoses, so the hose reference in the autopsy report was not from someone directly in the know.
But the story shook loose more specific information from Parnell. Finally he said the hose which Monroe, Isler and Rick Barkley were manning that day developed a gash, perhaps from rubbing over something sharp. They lost water pressure.
That had been one of several theories floating around, and it was good to hear Parnell finally confirm one of them.
No amount of investigating will bring Monroe and Isler back. But the community feels a responsibility to know exactly what caused their deaths in order to make sure nothing like this can happen again. Healing can’t really begin until we have more answers.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.