Fire Instructors Taunted Recruits in Memphis 'Hell Night'

Firefighter recruit James Coleman picked up his legs with his hands in order to keep walking, as other fatigued recruits dropped.

Instructors mocked the weary recruits over a loudspeaker, riding next to them on a golf cart, urging them to give up and ring a bell to signal defeat.

A quitter -- according to some instructors -- was worse than being a dead man on Hell Night.

Coleman, 41, wouldn't quit and it landed him in a coma.

"They'd have to drag me off of there dead before I rang that bell," one instructor yelled at a wavering recruit. "I'd be dead or unconscious before I rang that bell."

Six Memphis fire training officials -- three lieutenants, one driver, and chiefs David Rutledge and Frank Cotton -- were transferred out of the division after an investigation into the Oct. 12 session.

Seven recruits were taken to hospitals that night.

After several requests for results of that investigation, city officials released a summary Nov. 19 saying -- in short -- that they'd done nothing wrong.

It left Coleman's family bewildered and asking for answers.

Thursday, City Atty. Sara Hall released a video of Hell Night and written statements from recruits and instructors to The Commercial Appeal.

The video shows exhausted recruits stumbling through drills and instructors taunting them, laughing at how they were "dropping like flies."

One instructor notes that a recruit's eyes are "rolling up on him," but lets him keep going.

Coleman's attorney, Jeff Rosenblum, said the video is proof that the training is awry.

But Fire Director Richard Arwood -- who said in October he was not aware of a quitter's bell or taunting of recruits by instructors -- said through an E-mail Thursday that Hell Night didn't seem extreme to him.

"Certainly, in hindsight, some instructor behaviors were less than desirable," he wrote in an E-mail to Sara Hall.

But he said they weren't beyond what's expected from a training program.

Just before his final drill, Coleman was ordered to do 20 pushups for taking his helmet off.

He had already carried a hose up four flights of stairs, pulled another hose up to the fourth floor, and run back down to swing a sledge hammer on a rubber mat.

He dragged a dummy 100 feet, a powered hose 100 feet, raised a 35-foot ladder on a two-story building and walked across the top of the building.

Then, during the backbreaker called the "Memphis Mile," he walked a mile with a 40-pound hose pack -- twice.

Earlier, fellow recruits noticed Coleman getting sluggish. They asked if he was OK, and he said, "Yes, we can't quit."

The Memphis Mile seemed to be the breaking point for many recruits, who attempted it with varying degrees of success. Some of them made it, carrying the cumbersome hose gingerly. Others wobbled and then fell, or let part of their hose touch the ground -- sending their entire group back to the starting line.

Instructors heckled them, telling them if they couldn't handle it, they could go work at Wal-Mart.

At least three recruits collapse on the video.

The video, which was taken for a future graduation class viewing, shows instructors having to help recruits take their gear off, including one recruit too weak to even pull off his own gloves.

One recruit asked if he could rest and try again. They said no, but jokingly offered him a margarita.

Six recruits were treated at hospitals for dehydration and released that night.

Coleman remains in critical condition at Methodist University Hospital. He was in a coma for more than a month, but is now in his own room and making small improvements.

He has a tube in his mouth and can't speak, but he opens his eyes and acknowledges family with a nod of the head.

A probate judge made Coleman's mother, Barbara, his legal decision-maker Thursday to protect his interests.

His family knew about the tapes Thursday, but hadn't seen them. Their attorney had, however.

"I was disturbed," Rosenblum said. "The videos confirmed, in our opinion, the hazing perpetrated by the city."