Report: Army Fire Truck Problems Were Known

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (AP) -- The Army knew of safety hazards with a fire engine used on many bases but did nothing until after a firefighter was killed by a runaway truck, according to a newspaper report.

The Dothan Eagle said records it obtained detail a history of problems with the type of Amertek truck used by fire departments on many Army bases.

Those documents also say that a $356 kit was designed to prevent accidental drive-offs by the trucks, but it wasn't installed at Fort Rucker before the death of Kerry Neis, 31, during a training exercise Dec. 4, the newspaper said.

Army investigators cited human error as a factor in the death. But after the accident, the Army had the kit installed in all 250 of its Amertek 2500L fire trucks, including the 33 at Fort Rucker, the Army's aviation training center.

The kit installation, which was completed at the base about two months after the death, ``was one more factor to insure it never happened again,'' Fort Rucker spokesman Ken Holder said Monday.

Officials at Fort Rucker, located in southeast Alabama, also said they knew of only two other incidents involving the Amertek over 13 years.

``There were 400 vehicles fielded with only two incidents, both being driver operator error,'' Holder said.

But on the recommendation of an investigator, Maj. Gen. Larry J. Lust ordered the kit installed in the Amertek models throughout the Army by March 31, 2003.

Before the fatal accident, Fire Chief Kenneth Klein believed the safety kits were unnecessary when proper procedures were followed, and that installing them would not be cost-effective, according to an Army investigation report.

``Somebody dropped the ball, and nobody is responsible as far as the people I think should be responsible,'' said Lt. Paul Harrison, 52, whose injuries in the accident were so severe he has been out on worker's compensation since the accident.

Fort Rucker officials said no disciplinary action was taken in the accident.

The newspaper, in a series of stories Oct. 12, said it received documents from the Army under a Freedom of Information request. The documents included witness statements, technical bulletins and internal e-mails in which military and civilian employees of the Army recognized a potential ``runaway'' problem with the Amertek truck.

In the accident, Neis and Harrison, holding a hose, were standing with their backs to an Amertek 2500L that driver Larry Johnson had stopped in the training exercise.

According to Johnson's statement, he put the truck in the proper gear of neutral and took other steps for fighting a fire while the vehicle is in a stationary position, including putting wooden chocks around the driver's side rear wheel.

But after Johnson increased the truck's pressure and climbed off to remove kinks from the hose, he saw the fire truck lurch forward. Witnesses said the truck moved a second time and accelerated, striking Harrison and Neis as it barreled across the training site and plunged into woods.

Although Johnson said he put the truck in neutral, the investigation said the vehicle was in a drive gear after the accident, the Eagle reported.

Johnson, who declined to comment, has been reassigned to administrative duties, the newspaper said.

The Eagle said both Harrison's and Neis' families do not blame Johnson for the accident and feel Army management knew of safety problems while rank-and-file firefighters were unaware.

Harrison said he did not trust the military investigations that found human error was a factor.

``That's like letting the fox take care of the hen house,'' he said.