THREE MONTHS after Philadelphia's last line-of-duty firefighter death, yesterday brought a fresh reminder of how perilous this work can be when two firefighters with Ladder Company 14 accidentally brought a ladder down on a live 7,600-volt power line.
The firefighters got shocked — but also got lucky: Robert Taylor, a 14-year veteran, was held overnight in stable condition in Temple University Hospital's burn unit with third-degree burns to his feet; Eugene Coulter, a nine-year veteran, had injuries so minimal that he was treated at the hospital and released hours later, Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said.
The fire was reported at 9:31a.m. in a rowhouse on Norris Street near 25th in North Philadelphia. Firefighters arrived within three minutes and declared the blaze under control four minutes later, Sawyer said. Its cause remains undetermined.
But as fire crews cleaned up the scene, two Ladder 14 firefighters lowering a 35-foot ladder that they'd propped against the porch to ventilate accidentally tipped it onto power lines stretching over the sidewalk about 5 feet away, Sawyer said.
"This could have been a much worse incident. Those members are blessed," Sawyer said. "No call is routine. That's the one thing about the fire service you have to understand — that any given day, you might not go home. This was a routine job, four minutes, nothing major, the weather's not bad, and we still had injuries."
Lowering a ladder that size requires two firefighters, Sawyer said.
But Rodney Whetstone, 45, who lives on the block a few doors down, saw just one firefighter fall when the ladder touched the line.
"Electric current must have shot through the ladder ...[and] through his body because he was out," Whetstone said. "His arms just dropped and his body was stiff as a board, and he just fell backwards. Fortunately there was a wet mattress that they had already thrown out on the ground, so his body just fell right on the mattress — or else he would've fell directly on the ground."
A second firefighter was nearby, but Whetstone said he wasn't sure if that man was touching the ladder when the electricity surged down it.
Firefighters immediately swarmed their fallen colleague, Whetstone said.
"It's an unfortunate accident that something like this happened," Whetstone said. "If they would just have one look up, they would have said: 'Whoa, we're too close to that wire.' "
Firefighter Joyce Craig was the last firefighter to die on duty — and the city's first female firefighter killed on the job — when she got trapped in a house fire Dec. 9 in West Oak Lane.
Fire officials and others have blamed training lapses, a ladder company's poor response time and a high number of rookies and recent transfers for a "perfect storm" of errors that led to Craig's death.