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Firefighter Relives Horrific Fire Scene at Arsonist's Trial

Firefighter Relives Horrific Fire Scene at Arsonist's Trial

A fire at 27 The Crossways in West Hartford is controlled by firefighters from West Hartford Wednesday afternoon. The fire began in the basement and spread throught the brick house, no one was home at the time.

The Hartford Courant via YellowBrix

January 28, 2010

HARTFORD — – The fire lieutenant who led the initial attack on the ferocious blaze that consumed William Beckerman’s 3,200-square-foot West Hartford home last February was the first witness called Wednesday in Beckerman’s trial on charges that he set the fire.

Lt. Chris Gordon, who retired from the West Hartford Fire Department in July, described being confronted with blinding smoke as he and two colleagues forced their way into Beckerman’s home at 27 The Crossways on the afternoon of Feb. 11, 2009.

Beckerman’s trial was to start Wednesday morning, but was delayed till the afternoon by a hearing on a request by Beckerman’s defense attorney, David Kritzman, that key state evidence about gasoline and kerosene found in Beckerman’s basement be excluded from the trial.

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Superior Court Judge Thomas V. O’Keefe Jr. listened for a day and a half as Kritzman argued that Beckerman, 78, would be denied a fair trial if the state’s evidence was allowed.

The judge disagreed.

Whether the fire was arson was not an issue raised during Gordon’s testimony. Instead, he explained what he and his firefighters found after arriving at Beckerman’s home shortly after 3 p.m. He described how they crawled through the house on their hands and knees. Visibility was zero, he said. At one point, Gordon tumbled down two steps into a sunken living room.

He testified that he didn’t know what was happening and wondered at the time whether he was falling through the floor into the basement.

“I had no idea when I was going to stop falling,” he said.

The fire was in the basement, firefighters determined. Gordon and a second firefighter headed toward the basement door, which was full of flames that were shooting up from the basement.

The firefighters hit the fire with water and tested the steps by placing weight on them.

“I felt movement in the stairs,” Gordon said. “I felt the stairs shake.” Concerned the stairs might collapse, the firefighters continued to try battling the fire from above.

Eventually, all firefighters withdrew from the house after an explosion in the basement.

The fire burned about eight hours and was not declared under control until about 8:30 p.m.

Beckerman is accused of setting the fire with the gasoline and kerosene that investigators found in the basement. Beckerman claims a faulty furnace and oil leak caused the fire.

The February fire marked the second time Beckerman lost a home to a fire of suspicious origin. In March 1973 his home at 14 Winchester Drive in West Hartford was destroyed by a fire so intense that much of the house collapsed into the basement. The cause of that fire was never determined.