Jimmy Heenan's fire gear was supposed to protect him.
Instead, the firefighter's family says, it failed him when he needed it most.
While crawling into a burning West Deptford house in 2001, Heenan fell through a collapsing kitchen floor and was trapped under debris in the
basement for at least 20 minutes. He died from burns three months later.
Since his death, new questions have been raised about the safety of his gear, as firefighters from seven other departments around the country have suffered strange burns.
Now a government agency is considering whether firefighters should be warned about a potential defect in the gear - known by the brand name Securitex and made with a material called Duralite - that could cause those injuries.
The manufacturer, a French company called Bacou-Dalloz, calls a potential government warning "defamatory" and argues that no gear could have protected Heenan from his injuries.
Heenan's wife, Patti, sued the company about a year after his death, based mostly on her instinct that something had to be wrong. The case is pending.
She said the extent of her husband's injuries had mystified other firefighters because there had been little fire damage to his gear and his clothes underneath had been unscathed.
"It didn't make sense," she said. "We were so shocked. How did he get so burned?"
About 90,000 sets of Duralite turnout gear have been sold in the last decade, court records say.
In August 2002, the International Association of Fire Fighters asked the federal government to study the gear after the union fielded burn complaints from departments in Springfield, Mass., and Harrisburg. That study, conducted at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles, found a critical flaw in the Duralite fabric used in the outer shell of the gear.
Under extreme heat, fibers in the Duralite break down, creating a "screen-door" effect that allows heat into the gear's interior layers, the study found.
The Heenan family's lawyers say that is what happened to him. When he fell through the floor, they argue, a flash fire burned off fibers in his coat, creating the screen-door effect. While Heenan was trapped, heat poured inside his coat, particularly through an area near the left shoulder, they said.
William Tambussi, one of the lawyers, said Heenan, a 37-year-old father of two, had been "steamed to death."
In a 10-page letter, Bacou-Dalloz ripped the North Carolina State report as "replete with inaccuracies" and "inherently flawed." The company also said the screen-door effect was not a sign of a "product deficiency" but "an important warning indicator... that the garment has undergone severe thermal loading and should be taken out of service."
An expert report written for the defense by Thomas E. Neal, an analytical chemist, concluded that Heenan's "turnout coat and bunker pants were still intact and effective," noting that the screenlike appearance on the left shoulder of the coat was tiny - about 2 to 3 percent of his total body area.
Neal attributed Heenan's death to his prolonged exposure to the heat in the basement. No "gear available could have protected Firefighter Heenan from the burn injuries he sustained," he said.
Bacou-Dalloz general counsel Winn Major said he could not comment on the case because of the lawsuit, but he added, "Clearly we feel strongly that our gear is a good product."
Westmont lawyer John Devlin, who is representing the company in the lawsuit, did not return three phone calls or respond to an e-mail request for comment.
In his court filings, Devlin noted that a report by the Gloucester County Fire Marshal's Office did not fault Heenan's gear, and that a casualty report by the chief and assistant chief of Heenan's volunteer Verga Fire Company found "no failure of the protective coat."
And a state investigation that cited eight factors in Heenan's death did not note any problems with his gear.