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Command Accountability – a prerequisite for final closure

Lee Walton

This past Sunday’s Palter and Chatter front page article, “SLED reviews records for signs of negligence” reopened a deep, festering wound in the minds and hearts of surviving relatives and countless citizens alike who believe that criminal negligence by the CFD’s command structure was the principal reason nine firefighters lost their lives on the evening of June 18, 2007. With all but one remaining study completed, there are now consistent findings from several Sofa Super Store investigative reports that ”…cited command failures as a predominate factor in the (Charleston) Fire Department’s unstructured and uncoordinated response to the blaze, which exposed firefighters to excessive and avoidable risks.”

Several surviving relatives contend that sufficient evidence has accumulated to suggest that there is an ongoing effort to cover up and gloss over critical command failures while concentrating instead on the causes and origin of the fatal conflagration. Family members of two of the fallen stress that their continuing efforts are “…all about the truth…the truth has to come out. It’s been withheld for to long…Those men were set up to be killed…We’re just looking for justice and accountability...”

Two and a half years ago, a Shrimp ‘n Grits article, “City lacks Standards of Accountability in Leadership,” explored the growing probability a few months after the tragic fire that the Riley Administration was orchestrating an in-depth cover up to stem the growing tide of public opinion that professional incompetence and political cronyism were the root causes of this fatal disaster. Portions of that article bear repeating below:

“As predictable as gnats on a spring evening, Mayor J. Pericles Riley pitched a world-class temper tantrum this past week after SC OSHA released its revealing and profoundly critical assessment of the Charleston Fire Department’s leadership and organizational meltdown on the evening of June 18th that resulted in the tragic death of nine firefighters. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of OSHA’s scathing indictment of the CFD command structure and “willful” leadership indifference, Riley now has the unmitigated gall and audacity to challenge these findings as “incorrect conclusions” that, when “factored out”, would be ”…an affirmation of the leadership of the fire department…”

On countless occasions over the past three months, Riley has boasted that he would quickly release all forthcoming investigative reports to the public and move quickly to implement recommended changes to mold the CFD into a model “…whose standards are equal to or exceed national and international best practices.” Now when faced with the extremely critical OSHA findings, Riley polemically cries, “…We want to get to the truth…” With due respect Mr. Mayor - YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

As Charleston approaches the third anniversary of the tragic, preventable loss of nine brave firefighters who died following the commands of ill-trained, uneducated incompetents, it’s revealing to note that Sandy Senn, the attorney representing the Riley Administration, is also representing Riley’s former world-class fire chief and confidant, Rusty Thomas. The first question the citizens of Charleston should ask is why is the City’s legal counsel also representing a former City employee. The second should be is who’s paying Thomas’s legal fees and why?

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