Heroes, Scapegoats, and CYA Politics
The political dance over the death of Rachel Wilson is in full swing.
The report from an independent investigator will be released to the public today.
The report, which union officials say scapegoats rank-and-file firefighters while exonerating chief, and former academy head William Goodwin, is already coming under criticism.
On the heels the report, Wilson’s supervisor for the exercise, Ryan Wenger rejected its conclusion that he abandoned Wilson inside the burning house.
Speaking to the Sun, Wenger says, “I gave everything I could to save her that day…I gave 110 percent to help her. I looked up the definition of ‘abandonment.’ It is not me.”
Wenger conceded he was assigned to act as an instructor for the exercise, a role he does not normally perform in his duties as a member of a truck company. Asked to fill in for the exercise Wenger said “I don’t have any certification; I was never asked if I did.” Wenger did have doubts about his orders that day, but was he was not going to disobey orders, saying, “The Fire Department has a command structure, I’ve never had a problem with insubordination in the past, and this wasn’t going to be the first.”
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According to Wenger, once in the burning rowhouse the situation quickly deteriorated. Against all training and safety standards, instructors set multiple fires in the building. Wenger, Wilson and a second recruit Stephanie Cisneros needed to escape the unbearable heat. Wenger grabbed Cisneros and got her to safety, he then went back for Wilson. With the assistance of his friend Michael Hiebler, Wenger tried to get Wilson to safety. Despite their efforts they could not get her out in time to save her.
Mayor Sheila Dixon expressed doubts about her confidence in Goodwin and criticized firefighters for not speaking out about safety violations. This is a choice statement coming from Dixon in an election year. One wonders, given the nature of Baltimore politics, what would have happened had some firefighters blown the whistle on the lax standards and inept department leadership.
Goodwin will soon be joining Leonard Hamm on the chopping block. Both the rank-and-file and the officer’s unions expressed no-confidence in Goodwin’s leadership. Of course the sacrifice of Goodwin and his command staff will provide a fire wall for Dixon, because like her predecessor nothing is ever her fault.
No matter the outcome of the political dance, it is clear that the heroics of Ryan Wenger, despite the confluence of inept leadership and bureaucratic neglect that led to the tragedy, ensured that the loss of life that day was not any higher.