Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Biden MVA: The Response I Can't Shake

VP claims driver in fatal '72 wreck was drunk because that's what officials told him!

WILMINGTON, DE (March 26, 2009) – This narrative is in response to a CBS Report suggesting that a Pennsylvania man, Curtis Dunn, who was involved in the fatal accident involving Vice President Joe Biden’s deceased wife, Neilia, was not intoxicated. I was there in an official capacity, and the facts as I remember them are as such.

For those of you who are reading my work for the first time, and aren't aware of my history, I am a veteran firefighter and AEMT based in Delaware. At the time of Neilia Biden’s accident, I was studying at the University of Delaware and serving as a 20-year-old probationary volunteer fireman.

I refer to the current Vice President as Joe, not out of disrespect, but because in 1972, everyone in the state referred to Mr. Biden simply as Joe.

On the afternoon of December 19, 1972, I was returning home from classes at the University, when my fire scanner blurted out a dispatch for a "PI 10-10," a personal injury auto accident, on Limestone Road. Although firefighters and first-aid personnel weren’t permitted to respond to alarms in personal vehicles, first-in units indicated that the situation was very serious, so I made the decision to drive directly to the accident scene.

The Scene

In 1972, the intersection of Limestone and Valley Road was very remote, a rural section of New Castle County made up of mushroom farms and a lone liquor store. However, as I arrived, the scene was unusually busy with dozens of onlookers and those who had stopped to render assistance.

Law enforcement on the scene included a Delaware State Police officer, as well as a PA State Trooper, who had been ticketing a truck driver at the state line about 3/4 mile north of the scene. A first-aid crew and firemen from the volunteer station in Hockessin, Delaware had arrived, and the department’s fire policemen were taking positions to direct traffic. Scanner reports indicated that three other ambulances were on their way from Mill Creek, Newark and Pennsylvania.

A mangled auto lay in a ditch, about 150 or so feet from the intersection, and as I moved closer, it became apparent that persons were trapped in the wreckage. The Trooper had already checked the auto registration and radioed his supervisor that he believed the victims to be members of the Biden family. I hoped that he was mistaken.

The first-aid crew was working on Mrs. Biden while others searched for the infant, Naomi. Beau and Hunter Biden had been bounced around on impact and were severely injured— including head injuries, lacerations and broken bones. I was horrified.

A group of us huddled around an eyewitness, listening to her describe the accident. From her account Neilia Biden was stopped on Valley Road, preparing to cross Limestone Road. The woman recalled that the Biden car began to cross the road, and was struck broadside by a truck driven by Curtis Dunn of nearby Avondale, PA.

Limestone Road was a popular trucker shortcut in the Piedmont foothills leading from Delaware into Pennsylvania. The intersection with Valley Road was extremely dangerous, located at the bottom of two steep hills. Truckers traveling in either direction used the momentum coming down one hill, in order to climb the other. The speed limit on Limestone Road, at the intersection, was 35mph and huge REDUCE SPEED signs were posted a half-mile in both directions. Whether Curtis Dunn was speeding is unknown, but he had applied his brakes, which was apparent from twin 150 ft. skid marks.

Mr. Dunn's Condition

With the focus on the seriously injured Biden family, another firefighter and I attended to Mr. Dunn, who was seated in his truck. He was in shock, and had difficulty understanding me when I explained what had happened. He kept asking the same question over and over. "What am I doing here?" I placed a cervical collar around his neck and checked vital signs. A secondary survey revealed lacerations and contusions, but he was breathing, not bleeding badly and therefore was in no significant danger.

In regards to intoxication, there was no way to determine if Mr. Dunn had been drinking, since neither of the police officers had breathalyzers aboard their cruisers. His injuries were such that his demeanor was similar to that of someone in a stupor, but those of you who serve in emergency medicine know that such behavior is often presented by victims who are in shock, or perhaps even diabetic.

The scene was chaos, but within 10 minutes ambulances, and police escorts, began rushing the family members to Wilmington hospitals, about 16 miles away. Keep in mind it was the early 70’s and there was no ALS or paramedic system. Those of us who were firefighters had 40 hours of first-aid training, and our job was to make certain that the victim was breathing, that severe bleeding was controlled and that a patient's injuries were stabilized as best we could. Then we were off and running, rushing the victims to the hospital as quickly and safely as possible.

Beau and Hunter were the last to be moved because they required special attention. I recall Larry Mergenthaler and Don Lentes, both veteran volunteer firefighters working carefully on the boys. Beau and Hunter couldn't have had a better team treating them. It's said that every firefighter chooses a mentor early in his/her career, and it was at that moment that I chose mine.

I’ve learned that all of the records pertaining to this accident are lost. It doesn't surprise me. Back then our ambulance incident report was filled out on a 5x7 card and filed away in a box. Once a month the information was transferred to a master list, which was latter placed in storage.

If Mr. Dunn was intoxicated, there was no way to determine that at the hospital either, since alcohol blood tests were not mandatory in 1972. The hospital records are missing, as well as the police reports. To be honest, those of us in fire-rescue here in Delaware assumed that Mr. Dunn had been drinking, based on comments made by police officers at the scene. And in the Delaware fire service, rumors travel from station to station like wildfire.

Until he remarried in 1977, whenever Joe Biden attended a public safety event, parade or spoke during a firehouse banquet, police officers and firefighters would approach him and discuss the accident and the tragedy of his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi falling victim to a drunken driver. Imagine how those discussions must have affected the young Senator.

Curiously, the Attorney General’s office never filed charges against Mr. Dunn, and so the official word is that he had not been drinking.


The next time I came in contact with Beau Biden was during his campaign for Delaware Attorney General in 2006. Beau, a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, had just completed a debate with his opponent, Ferris Wharton. Beau, and the entire Biden clan, were in the lobby of an elderly high rise shaking hands with well wishers and supporters. My wife approached Beau and mentioned that I had been one of the firefighters who responded to his aid back in 1972.

He grabbed me by the sleeve and we walked to a quiet area. He called his brother Hunter to join us. There were few words; plenty of tears but both men thanked me again and again. I mentioned that I knew their mother personally, as I served as a media volunteer on Joe's first senatorial campaign.

The last time I saw Neilia alive was a week before the election, when I drove her to a meet and greet at the Stone Balloon in Newark. A popular band called The Boys were performing and the place was packed. But when Neilia walked onto the dance floor, she became the center of attention. She often was.

As first responders, our participation in emergency incidents ends when we back the ambulance into the station. We're trained to forget details. But the Biden accident and my work at ground zero are two incidents that I’ll take to my grave.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Asst. Fire Chief Arrested in Coatesville Arsons

BREAKING NEWS: Career firefighterarrested for additional arsons !!!
As I noted in my post of 6 weeks ago, all indications were that a firefighter was responsible for setting some of the arson fires in Coatesville, PA, Chester County. My biggest fear because a reality today. The following report is resposted with permission of WPVI-TV, Philadelphia.

COATESVILLE, Pa. - March 23, 2009 (WPVI) -- The Chester County, PA Arson Task Force announced late Monday that the assistant fire chief of the Coatesville Fire Department has been arrested in the arson spree plaguing Coatesville and surrounding communities.

Police say they've arrested Robert Tracey, 37, of the 600 block of Charles Street in Coatesville. Tracey had been a volunteer assistant fire chief for the West End Fire Company, one of two companies that make up the Coatesville Fire Department. Tracey recently became employed as a part-time career firefighter for the city.
The criminal complaint lists nine charges against Tracey in relation to the two arsons of March 20, 2009 at 669 Madison Street, Coatesville, Pa., and 107 Hope Street, Coatesville, Pa.

The home on Madison Street belonged to Felicia Taylor. She told Action News that her lawn furniture was set on fire when an arsonist struck. She and her fiance were inside her home when a neighbor came banging on the door saying something was burning behind the house.

"The swing was right up against the house out back. So we pulled it away from the house and out to the yard so it wouldn't burn the house," Buddy Miller said.

"I ran down in the basement, turned the water on, and got the hose and extinguished it out," Felicia Taylor said. A second fire on the 100 block of Hope Street occurred in a trash can between two homes, two blocks away on Hope street. Residents of the homes report spotting the arsonist.

One woman described what her fiance saw: "He saw a young man at the trash can with a lighter you would light a grill with, and the sensor light didn't even seem to phase him."

"The arsonist is bold because there's a lot of lights back there. I have two sets of motion lights back there and I have dawn to duskers in front," Paul Evans, the victim's landlord, said.
Both fires were quickly extinguished. Nobody was hurt in either fire.
Tracey was appointed Assistant Chief, from Engine Captain, during the rash of arsons in January and February. In his new position, Tracey worked in operations as a safety officer and water supply officer.

There have been nearly 50 arsons in Coatesville since February of last year, and more than 20 have been set just this year. Two suspects, Roger Barlow and Mark Gilliam, have been charged in 10 of them.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

9 Philly Firefighters Hurt as Apparatus Collide

One firefighter remains in serious condition: (Still image courtesy Chopper 6)

PHILADLEPHIA, PA (March 19, 2009) -- Nine Philadelphia firefighters and a civilian were rushed to downtown hospitals following a crash involving 2 fire apparatus. The accident took place at 11:20am at 8th and Lombard Streets in Old Town.

The crash took place as Squrt 43 and Ladder 9, companies which are housed together at 23rd and Market Streets, arrived simultaneously at the intersection. The companies were responding from a previous alarm at 7th and Market, far from their local alarm district.

Witnesses say that Squrt 43, traveling south on 8th street -- and Ladder 9, traveling west on Lombard -- collided with tremendous force at the intersection. Squrt 43 plowed into the cab of Ladder 9, a tractor drawn aerial, changing the engine's path from south to west in seconds. The impact drove the aerial truck into nearby row homes, with the engine coming to rest after knocking down a utility pole.

6ABC Video of the Crash Scene

According to 6ABC's John Rawlins, 5 firefighters from the Ladder Company and 4 from the Squrt were taken to three downtown hospitals. Medics stationed just 2 blocks away were on the scene in a matter of seconds, radioing that the officer of Ladder 9 was unconcious and trapped.

Firefighters involved:

Engine Company 43:
Lt Steve Kessler, FF Shawn Conway, FF Keith Davis, FF David Keller

Ladder Company 9:
Lt Richard Prather, FF Anthony Russell, FF Charles Green, FF James Hegarty

Other companies quickly arrived and the Lieutenant was extricated from the mangled interior of the American LaFrance cab. Fire Commisioner Lloyd Ayers said that the Lieutenant was concious and asking about his men as he was being loaded into a medic unit.

Right now, it's unknown which apparatus had the green light, but Ayers promised that a full investigation would be launched.

Experts compare this wreck to a similar accident which occured in St. Louis this past summer, when a traffic camera recorded two Quints colliding at an intersection. In that incident, the apparatus collided at a high rate of speed, causing one of the rigs to spin 180 degrees, the roll over.

Video of St. Louis Crash


Friday, March 13, 2009

What if you had a fire…and no one came?

By Lou Angeli

They are the folks who leave behind family and home at a moment’s notice to help a neighbor or other any person in need. That’s the story of 800,000 Americans who serve as fire-rescue volunteers. Until recently, it was a story that brought pride and inspiration to 80% of the communities in this nation. But times have changed and what was once America’s greatest emergency asset is suffering from a variety of setbacks.

A generation ago, when the fire whistle blew, members raced to the firehouse – almost as if someone’s life depended on it. Every firefighter’s goal was to arrive at the station as quickly as possible, in order to ride out on the first responding engine.

“Within 3 minutes of the alarm being sounded, that firetruck was packed with firefighters,” says Paul Brown, a veteran Delaware volunteer. “There were so many of us onboard that we often left the station with guys riding atop the hosebed.”

In 1976 it was this country’s largest private club. But a generation later, the sad truth is that somewhere along the line many of Firefighter Brown’s colleagues fell off the hose wagon. With membership numbers dropping, the inability to retain well trained personnel and with very few new recruits, the American volunteer service is in dire straits and some say that its downward spiral is irreversible.

With the notion that fire-rescue services are a given, supported by some secret stash of tax dollars, the public never really learns about the hard, cold reality of delivering and managing fire-rescue services in North America’s suburban and rural communities. Citizens expect, and government claims they rightfully deserve first-class fire protection, no matter where they reside. In fact, most citizens assume that the vast majority of firefighters receive a paycheck.

“They think of us as the glitzy, metropolitan image of the ideal firefighter,” says Michael Donofrio, a volunteer in suburban Philadelphia. “What they don’t know is that 80% of us work for free, in departments that often are ill prepared to do an effective job.”

Asking Folks To Risk Their Lives - For Free

Many of North America’s volunteer fire departments are hurting - in a very big way. Problem #1 for volunteer administrators is finding suitable individuals to serve at America’s most dangerous occupation - for free. When I first became a firefighter 23 years ago, I simply filled out a one-page application, submitted it to the membership chairman, and 56 of the 57 members attending the company meeting voted me “in” as a member. I was issued a locker and turnout gear, and responded to my first call within 2 hours of my acceptance into the company.

These days it’s not quite that easy. Prospective members must endure a thorough screening, medical physicals, extensive background checks and face-to-face interviews, before they’re presented to the membership. And in my mind, that’s a real good thing. Some questionable individuals, who were invited to ride the back step in 1976, wouldn’t make the cut in today’s volunteer fire service. But eliminating warm bodies has taken a toll on the system’s overall numbers.

Keeping The Good Ones:

A generation ago, Firefighter I and II, a 40 hour EMT course, and an Extrication class were all we really needed to be certified as firefighters. These days, similar training merely earns a spot in the jumpseat of the last out rig. In an industry that has evolved into a multi-task emergency response system, training volunteers for every eventuality requires a major commitment on the part of individual members.

The question in many minds is, how much more can we ask of our volunteer members?”With families and two jobs it’s a commitment that many just can’t make. For departments, retaining these qualified, trained personnel becomes a real challenge. The reward of the annual banquet dinner or Christmas party somehow has lost its appeal.

Managing Costs With Limited Funds:

“Running a volunteer department has become a real art,” one chief officer told me recently. “…because technology keeps bashing us in the head.” As the fire-rescue business diversifies to include specialty tasks such as haz-mat and terrorism response, the need for expensive, high-tech equipment becomes a costly reality. With these new tools comes another costly demand – additional training.

Volunteer departments on the East Coast are fortunate. There is a huge tax base from which to draw, and the most costly line items – salaries and benefits – don’t appear on the spreadsheet. On Long Island, for example, volunteer departments operate with new, state-of-the-art apparatus, working from stations that are so large and well equipped that they’ve earned the nickname “fire cathedrals.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of volunteer fire departments don’t enjoy the same level of support as their colleagues in the Mid-Atlantic States. For example, Oceanside, Long Island’s vintage parade pumper might be some other department’s first-out machine. Can you imagine stretching a hose line from a 35-year-old rig, not knowing whether the pump will draw an adequate vacuum, or simply grind to a halt? Or worse yet, responding to the call in protective equipment that was a “hand me down” in 1978.

There are many among us who do it every day. That’s the predicament faced by thousands of departments nationwide, especially those in America’s heartland. When the cards are laid out on the table, it’s clear to see that inadequate funding often forces small town fire administrators to gamble with firefighters’ lives.

Providing Adequate Daytime Response:

But the issue that is common to all volunteer departments, large or small, and regardless of funding, is that of Daytime staffing and response. More than any other issue, it has become the prime fodder that fuels the ongoing debate over volunteer vs. career. And it is this often-heated debate, which has allowed the problems of America’s volunteers to surface in headlines and on TV, bringing the entire system (good and bad) under public scrutiny.

The problem is simple - the solution is not. Simply stated, the volunteer system functions best after 5pm, when the majority of its members have returned from their full time jobs, and are readily available to respond to emergencies. Unfortunately, the fire beast, an inattentive driver or a broken down human heart could care less about job commitments and the 9 to 5 routine of daily life. Serious emergencies strike where they want, when they want, as often as they want.

More than all of the other problems combined, the issue of daytime response is the most important for the volunteer sector to address. For many departments around the country it means bringing paid personnel aboard to serve as the nucleus for daytime response. For others it means consolidation and relinquishing control to a greater authority. Career proponents are eager to begin the conversion, however die-hard volunteers are vehemently opposed to either solution.

But one thing is certain, whether it’s poor staffing or the inability to place rolling stock on the street in a timely fashion; the situation is looking quite grim for the Volunteer Fire-Rescue Service. And many of those who make firefighting and EMS part of their lifestyle and living, believe that it’s the beginning of the end for one of this nation’s most venerable of institutions.