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Reaction to Fire Report

Dispute and disagreement...after a Boston fire department panel released its report on the restaurant blaze that killed two fire firefighters in West Roxbury last summer.

The department's Board of Inquiry yesterday unveiled its findings without reviewing the firemens' autopsy results. This, despite media reports that one of the men was under the influence of alcohol, and the other, of cocaine.

Now Boston's top fire official is calling the inquiry incomplete.

WBUR's Shannon Mullen reports.

Audio of this story will be available online later today.

TEXT OF STORY:

SHANNON MULLEN: Standing at a podium in the Boston Fire Department headquarters, the chairman of the review board defended its 134-page report.

Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Dunbar said the panel found no evidence that alcohol or drug impairment contributed to the deaths of Warren Payne and Paul Cahill last August.

STEPHEN DUNBAR: We did extensive interviewing, we went over all tactics and strategy and we couldn't come up with any indication of any kind of impairment that would have led to their fatalities.

MULLEN: But two hours later, at the same podium, the man who appointed Dunbar to head the inquiry, called its report ambiguous and deficient. Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser:

RODERICK FRASER: This is a tragedy and we have to know what happened, and we have to make sure we're taking the right actions to ensure that our firefighters are safe in the future. And I believe that in order to do that, you have to look at the toxicology reports, you have to discuss them with medical experts that can interpret those reports.

MULLEN: Media reports since the fire said autopsies showed Cahill had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, and Payne had cocaine traces in his system.

Panel Chairman Dunbar says he requested those autopsy reports from the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. But he went through the Boston Police Department, claiming that's standard protocol.

But he never followed up on his request.

DUNBAR: When I ask a police lieutenant in writing, do you think any more formal request should be made of that? I take it for granted that people should do their jobs, one public servant to another asking for their response, should I have to follow up over and over again? If I did that I'd never get anything done.

MULLEN: A Boston Police spokesman says the department does not process requests for autopsy results, and the fire review panel should have asked District Attorney Dan Conley's office for them directly.

Conley's spokesman, Jake Wark, says the panel never sent his office a "formal request."

He adds that — along with next of kin and parties to a lawsuit — the law also allows investigative bodies to view autopsy reports.

JAKE WARK: You know, the board is arguably an investigative body — they're a board of inquiry, right? I see no reason why we wouldn't release this report.

MULLEN: A few weeks ago, Fire Commissioner Fraser and the attorney for the city asked the panel not to release its final findings without considering the toxicology reports.

All those on the fire review panel are members of the Boston Firefighters' Union, and panel Chairman Dunbar admits the long and contentious contract dispute between the union and the city might have influenced his group's review process.

DUNBAR: I don't want this board of inquiry to be used as a contractual tug of war between the mayor and departments. It's an independent board, and unfortunately it seems like it's evolved into that.

EDWARD KELLEY: Unlike Mayor Menino and the Fire Commissioner, the firefighters aren't interested in placing blame. We're interested in saving lives.

MULLEN: Union President Edward Kelley says he's satisfied with the report as is, and that Commissioner Fraser is denying fallen firefighters' families peace by objecting to the findings.

KELLEY: The Boston firefighters have sworn an oath that we would be able to give our lives for the people of this city. Warren and Paul did just that, and they should be remembered that way.

MULLEN: Commissioner Fraser did praise the panel for its thorough explanation of the fire, and for many of its 60 recommendations. Among them: a call for licensing of restaurants use kitchen exhaust systems, such as the one blamed for causing the blaze.

But he wants to reconvene the panel and make sure they consider the toxicology reports.

The D.A. has agreed to release the autopsy and toxicology reports to the city, and Mayor Tom Menino will have final say on who considers them, and for what purpose.

For WBUR, I'm Shannon Mullen.

This program aired on February 23, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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