THREE MONTHS after Joyce Craig became Philly's first female firefighter to die on duty, three investigations into her death remain unresolved.

That's because a series of errors occurred that morning, complicating investigators' probes, sources said.

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Fire spokesman Clifford Gilliam declined to comment on the Dec. 9 fire in West Oak Lane that killed Craig, saying he couldn't talk about ongoing investigations.

But veteran firefighters described it as "a perfect storm of things that went wrong," including:

An inexperienced ladder crew took 18 minutes to respond.

The team with whom Craig entered the rowhouse got separated, leaving her alone inside.

Many of those on the scene were either young or recent transfers, including the firefighter assigned to fight the fire beside Craig.

The city Fire Marshal's Office, the Medical Examiner's Office and the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are investigating.

NIOSH scrutinizes all firefighter fatalities as part of its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, spokeswoman Nura Sadeghpour said.

"The team made several site visits in December and are still collecting information and evaluating what they have learned so far," Sadeghpour said, adding that a final report isn't expected until late summer or early fall.

Without completed investigations, some death benefits for Craig's family - she left behind two children, a 16-year-old son and a toddler daughter - can't be paid out, sources said. Craig also died without a will, further complicating affairs.

Craig's relatives couldn't be reached for comment.

The blaze that killed Craig was the sort firefighters dread: a basement blaze in tight quarters with paneled walls (paneling burns fast and hot).

The fire created a "chimney effect" - a hellish, upwardly billowing tunnel of smoke and flame so hot and blinding that the chief ordered those inside to evacuate. Such evacuation orders are communicated to everyone via radio, and sometimes, additionally, firetruck drivers sound an air horn, depending on the urgency of the emergency.

It's unclear when Craig became separated from her lieutenant and partner firefighter. Firefighters didn't notice Craig was trapped inside until they got outside and realized she wasn't with them, Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer and union chief Joe Schulle said a few hours afterward.

Craig called for help several times and was found collapsed in the first-floor dining room, suffering from smoke inhalation and burns.

Those close to Craig complain that she was paired with an inexperienced young firefighter who struggled through the Fire Academy. That woman, sources said, is related to a highly placed member of Mayor Nutter's administration.

That firefighter, who the Daily News is not naming because she hasn't been charged or disciplined, was transferred to fire headquarters after Craig's death, sources said.

While Craig was trapped inside, no help was available.

The rescue crew that would have been first on the scene was Ladder 29, based less than 2 miles away at Broad and Champlost streets. But they had accompanied a medic unit on another run and couldn't respond, sources said.

So Ladder 21, the next-closest ladder company, responded, raising ladders on the front of the home, searching for victims (an elderly resident had to be rescued) and ventilating windows.

A second ladder company typically assists the first, shutting off utilities and helping however they can - including rescuing downed colleagues.

But Ladder 8, sent from its home base at Chelten Avenue and Baynton Street, was "delayed," according to fire dispatch's audio of the incident. The driver blamed traffic, telling the dispatcher he was "stuck behind a car," according to the audio.

Yet those familiar with the events that day say the truck was manned with new transfers unfamiliar with the streets. So, while the Ladder 8 crew may have gotten stuck behind a car, they also got lost, taking 18 minutes to respond to a scene they should have arrived at in six minutes, sources familiar with the incident said. Ladder 8's route, recorded by GPS, and the inexperience of the crew in that neighborhood likely will be part of the investigation, sources said.

Engine 73, the company Craig - assigned to Crescentville's Engine 64 - was subbing for that night, also was staffed by a "very young" crew, sources said.

The fire union has sued the city over the Fire Department's transfer policy.

Former Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers adopted the policy two years ago, arguing that new recruits needed experience in busier stations as the department lost veteran firefighters and officers to retirement.

But union officials have complained the policy replaces veteran firefighters who have become experts in their neighborhoods' streets and structures with rookies who aren't.

The union in February asked City Council to hold hearings on the policy.

"It's an irresponsible policy that puts firefighters at great risk, as well as the public that we're meant to serve," said Schulle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, which represents Philly's firefighters and paramedics.

"We become specialists in the neighborhoods on all these runs - we learn information that takes years and years to accumulate, like the best streets to take because of the size of our trucks, which houses have basement and side doors or servant stairs, which streets have low-hanging wires, overpasses or tight corners, that kind of stuff," Schulle said. "By shuffling people around, they're just harming the community."

Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com