DENVER (CBS4)– A CBS4 Investigation has found that a Denver firefighter fell through a rooftop skylight and suffered a “close call” in 2012, three years before the same thing happened to firefighter John Whelan in June of this year, which led to Whelan’s death.
But the information about the 2012 incident, which could have served as a warning about warehouse roofs and brittle skylights, was not widely shared with department members.
“I’ll tell you, I have a concern with that incident,” said Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade when CBS4 asked him about the 2012 case.
Tade was the department chief in 2012, but acknowledged he was never told that one of his firefighters had nearly fallen through a warehouse skylight to his death.
When asked, “It seems like this was critical information that was not shared?” Tade replied, “I would agree.”
On June 28, Denver firefighter Whelan stepped through a fiberglass skylight during a minor fire and fell 25 feet. He died three weeks later, leaving behind a wife and son and a grieving department.
Whelan and other firefighters had responded to a late-night dumpster fire in north Denver. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, flames scorched an adjacent warehouse which was mostly empty. There was nobody inside during the brief fire.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave McGrail, the incident commander, sent Whelan and his colleagues from Truck 8 up to the roof of the metal building to make sure the fire had not spread. Within a few minutes, Whelan stepped through a fiberglass skylight and fell 25 feet to the concrete floor below. He died July 15 of complications from the fall.
In his internal report on what happened, obtained by CBS4, McGrail wrote that, “These skylights are not elevated above the roof deck … it would be extremely difficult, if not completely impossible for firefighters operating on the roof, especially at night, without the benefit of sufficient light, to identify and avoid stepping on these.”
But the CBS4 Investigation found a nearly identical incident three years earlier, in 2012, in which the same Assistant Chief — Dave McGrail — had another firefighter on a similar metal roof in north Denver with nearly tragic results.
On May 20, 2012, Denver Fire companies responded to a reported structure fire at an auto salvage warehouse on North Brighton Boulevard. McGrail had a crew assigned to the roof although other crews quickly discovered the smoke was coming from a commercial oven inside the warehouse and there was no fire. The warehouse was vacant and there was nobody inside. Companies shut down the oven.
McGrail then asked firefighters on the roof to verify there were no additional problems. Lt. Joseph Duran, one of the firefighters checking the roof, stepped onto a fiberglass skylight panel and fell through.
According to McGrail’s report on that 2012 incident, “Lt. Duran fell through the opening. He was able to catch himself on the roof decking, preventing a 25-foot fall to the floor of the building.”
Other firefighters rescued the dangling lieutenant, who was not injured. Duran, who declined to speak to CBS4 about the incident, authored a two-page report about what happened. In that report, Duran wrote that because of the type of building, he told his crew before he fell, “We’re going up on the aerial and we’ll operate from the stick. We’re not getting on this roof.”
Duran wrote that he later decided he could walk on the roof but noted, “the limited areas of structural support under the steel panels and pointing out the existence of the fiberglass ‘skylight’ panels and the need to absolutely avoid stepping on them.”
But Duran then stepped through a fiberglass skylight.
“I hear another crack and felt myself fall,” he wrote. “I realized I was falling through the hole and stretched out my arms to try to hold on to the roof.”
His two page report, obtained by CBS4, includes a “Lessons Learned” section which suggests: “Consider other options to gain intelligence from the roof level. Staying on the aerial apparatus could have likely provided us with the same information.”
In McGrail’s summary of the incident, he wrote that he would “follow up on this with Safety and Training Division to get information out about this building and the close call incident.”
But numerous fire department commanders — including Chief Tade — now acknowledge that crucial 2012 information was never widely shared.
So if Assistant Chief McGrail had this “close call” with one of his firefighters in 2012, why did he then send another firefighter onto a similar roof in nighttime conditions three years later? McGrail told CBS4 he was unwilling to be interviewed. It’s unclear how Duran’s report on his near fatal fall was disseminated and who did — or did not — receive a copy.
However Fire Chief Tade said he heard nothing of the 2012 Duran case until recent months after the death of John Whelan.
“I’ve only been aware of that incident a short period of time,” said Tade during an October interview.
And Tade said he had never seen the “Lessons Learned” report from the 2012 incident until CBS4 handed it to him on October 14.
“I’m not aware of where this record resides,” said Tade.
He repeatedly said he was “troubled” that he and other fire department commanders were never informed of the 2012 near miss after it occurred, even though McGrail wrote that he and others would “get information out.”
“Generally any time a safety concern comes up we would expect someone to highlight it and engage in appropriate training,” said Tade.
But Tade concedes that never happened. He said the department is now investigating why the 2012 “close call” was never shared department-wide or used as a cautionary learning tool.
Numerous other current Denver firefighters, who were not authorized to speak for the department, told CBS4 they too had never heard of the 2012 incident until after Whelan’s death. Several expressed surprise and concern that the incident wasn’t shared to help prevent a re-occurrence.
Joe Hart, an assistant fire chief who retired earlier this year, told CBS4,”I never heard about the event. So whoever got that didn’t advance it or tell me about it. Any time a firefighter falls through a roof, I would want to be trained to avoid it.”
Rex King, a former assistant chief who retired in 2014 after more than 35 years on the job, told CBS4 it was “disconcerting” that he and other firefighters were never informed of the 2012 close call.
“It would have been critical information from a safety aspect,” said King.
Although Assistant Chief McGrail declined to discuss that incident, the Whelan case, or anything else with CBS4, several former colleagues now say they alerted the department numerous times to what they perceived as overzealousness and unnecessary risks McGrail was taking on a regular basis.
“I don’t want to see another firefighter die when it’s for nothing,” said Hart.
Hart served with the Denver Fire Department for 37 years before retiring in late June. He said — and Fire Chief Eric Tade confirmed — that prior to 2015 he repeatedly raised concerns about McGrail’s tactics and approach to seemingly minor incidents. A running joke in the fire department was that McGrail would “supersize” minor incidents until they became widely known as “McFires.”
Hart says prior to the death of John Whelan, he raised concerns about McGrail’s tactics three times between 2013 and 2015. Once he filed a complaint of McGrail unnecessarily speeding to a fire when other commanders already had the situation under control. In 2014, Hart said he approached Fire Department Operations Chief Charles Drennan to again express concerns about McGrail’s tactics.
“His response was, ‘You’re not the only one complaining,'” said Hart.
Hart’s final complaint came on June 28, his last day at work before retirement. Hart contacted Fire Chief Eric Tade, who confirmed the conversation to CBS4.
According to both men, Hart said to Tade,”I promised you once before that if Dave (McGrail) hurt anybody I’m going to be sitting at the plaintiff’s table and I’ll make sure they know about you not doing anything to stop this.”
The Chief said, “Yeah, yeah, I got it” then hung up,” according to Hart.
Roughly 12 hours later, McGrail ordered Whelan up to the roof following the Blake Street dumpster fire.
“If you’re going into a vacant structure… the benefit is less and the risk should be less,” contends Hart.
As to the Whelan incident, Hart said he believes the firefighter fatality was preventable.
“I would not have put him on that roof,” he said.
Another current Denver Fire Department commander confirmed that the fire chief and his inner circle had been warned numerous times prior to last June about what was widely perceived to be “overzealousness” on the part of Assistant Chief McGrail.
“I feel the chief allowed this to go on unchecked,” said the commander.
He said Tade and his top administrators were “absolutely aware of it and chose not to make any changes.”
Rex King said he too warned fire department administrators years ago about what he perceived to be unnecessary risks taken by McGrail. He said in 2013 he contacted Operations Chief Drennan to question McGrail’s tactics.
According to King, Drennan told him, “I’m not going to tell someone how to run their fire scene.”
King said he was “stunned” by that answer. Like some other current and former commanders, King contends top fire department administrators were warned numerous times about McGrail “exposing people to risk unnecessarily. I made more than one complaint to Drennan about the way McGrail was operating.”
King says he now believes the death of firefighter Whelan was unnecessary.
“How do you justify losing a firefighter at a dumpster fire? You can’t justify that, ever,” said King. “It was for naught.”
CBS4 also tracked down and obtained an email, sent by Assistant Fire Chief Steve Winters to Operations Chief Drennan, dated July 15. Winters declined to elaborate on his email which was sent just before he retired, and prior to Whelan dying.
“I know you have the information you need about Dave McGrail,” wrote Winters.
He went on to ask Drennan a number of rhetorical questions about McGrail’s tactics: “Is it fair… to turn every incident into a full alarm or bigger? Have I (McGrail) become so self- absorbed that I have become a danger to myself and others? Should I be put in a time out, away from operations? When I’m so convinced my way is the only way, have I become dangerous?”
Winters went on to write that McGrail consistently would “escalate the incident even after they have determined it to be something as simple as burnt food with no extension, I should be removed from operations.”
Winters wrote that he could not cite specific incidents where McGrail “screwed up” but said his opinions were derived from years of observing McGrail.
Tade said he had previously seen Winters’ email but said since it did not contain any specific, documented complaints, there wasn’t much he could do.
McGrail has been in the fire service for 34 years and is widely recognized as an expert on high rise fires, lecturing and training departments around the country and around the world on tactics and operations.
One Denver firefighter, who is not authorized to speak for the department, said McGrail is extremely safety conscious and has the confidence of many department members. Following the death of Whelan, on July 26, the fire department transferred McGrail to a training facility at Denver International Airport. The department said the move had nothing to do with the Whelan incident, but was simply a reassignment based on promotions and retirements. Since then, McGrail has again been transferred to Denver’s dispatch center.
Tade said he believed Assistant Chief McGrail is “dedicated and passionate about his work and he has strong convictions about how incidents should be handled. He tends to utilize more resources than other chiefs,” said Tade.
He went on to say that McGrail is “very committed to his way of doing things” and that his use of department resources has never been found to be unwarranted or unjustified.
“Shame on them for allowing a rogue actor,” said Rex King. “Denver lost a firefighter for nothing. The most tragic thing that could have happened, happened,” said King. “And there was no reason to have a firefighter lose his life over a trash fire.”
Tade said an internal department review of Whelan’s death was nearing completion and that it would include information about the 2012 Duran incident uncovered by CBS4. At the same time, a federal investigation of the Whelan incident being conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is underway.