Boston Fire Truck Driver Clean in Fatal Wreck

Jan. 16, 2009
As toxicology results cleared the driver in last week's deadly ladder truck crash, the firefighters union yesterday released a disturbing list of complaints.

As toxicology results cleared the driver in last week's deadly ladder truck crash, the firefighters union yesterday released a disturbing list of jake complaints alleging antiquated engine and ladder trucks routinely conk out and pose a public safety threat.

"He was 100 percent clean," said a fire official, among two sources who confirmed firefighter Robert B. O'Neill III was free of illicit substances when the Ladder 26 truck he was driving careened out of control into a Mission Hill high-rise, killing fire Lt. Kevin M. Kelley.

Even so, firefighters Local 718 president Edward Kelly retained labor attorney Thomas Drechsler to represent O'Neill against potential allegations of operator error by the city. A preliminary probe has focused on faulty brakes.

Also yesterday, brake problems rendered Beacon Hill Ladder 24 on Cambridge St. and Ladder 18 on D St. in South Boston out of service. Ladder 6 in Peabody Square in Dorchester also remained in maintenance.

Meanwhile, the Herald obtained dozens of vehicle and equipment complaints reported early last year by members, ranging from trucks that wouldn't start up immediately to transmission failures and cracked equipment.

According to those records, which could not be independently confirmed:

  • An Engine 37 spare - in the same firehouse as ill-fated Ladder 26 - lacked seatbelts and had dangerously high fumes in February 2008. After it failed to start when called to a fire and a driver's seat broke from the floor board, it finally broke down in the middle of Blue Hill Avenue later that month.
  • Ladder 6 in Dorchester, which was taken out of service for brake problems Wednesday, had a top speed of 10 mph going uphill, according to a February 2008 complaint.
  • Engine 10, stationed on Purchase Street downtown, failed state inspection last year because of "numerous defects," including broken horns - but allegedly remained in service.
  • On Jan. 25, 2008, Engine 20 was without a siren in Dorchester when it spontaneously "revved up to a high rate of speed." The driver was "unable to stop," striking a car at the intersection of Adams Street and Victory Road.
  • Days earlier on Jan. 17, 2008, Engine 41 in Allston was on Harvard Avenue when the brakes "locked up, sending (the truck) into a skid," according to the complaint. "The driver skillfully was able to keep the apparatus in the street, but we ended up sideways, blocking both lanes of traffic," the complaint reads.

Also yesterday, the fallen lieutenant's widow made her first public comments. "He was a very good firefighter," said Gloria Kelley of Quincy. "He was an excellent husband and father - and that's all I can say."

Of the 13 ladder and engine trucks that underwent brake inspections ordered by fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr., two failed, said department spokesman Steve MacDonald. A union-hired consultant discovered problems with Ladder 24 yesterday as well as with three trucks taken out of service Wednesday.

Republished with permission of The Boston Herald.

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