Fire Officials Blamed in Blaze That Killed Firefighter
The Houston Chronicle via YellowBrix
June 28, 2011
The state fire marshal’s investigation into the death of Wharton firefighter Thomas Araguz has found that command staff erred in sending him into an egg farm warehouse inferno last summer since no lives were being threatened.
Araguz, a 30-year-old father of two, died July 4, 2010, when he could not find his way out of the blaze at the Maxim Farm in Boling that processed about a million eggs daily.
The state investigation also found that command staff failed to have a rescue team on standby or to verify radio equipment was properly operating before sending firefighters into the burning building.
In addition, the recently issued report said the incident commander had not adequately sized up the fire scene and had not kept effective control of 30 fire departments and 150 personnel who reported to help.
Araguz’s transgender widow, Nikki Araguz, made headlines last summer after a civil case developed over her husband’s death benefits, worth more than $600,000. Weeks after the fire, Nikki Araguz and the firefighter’s ex-wife began fighting over the legitimacy of the marriage.
On Monday, Nikki Araguz said she was “devastated to hear the details of what went awry.”
“It should never have happened,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder of what could have been prevented.”
Thomas Araguz’s mother, Mona Longoria, has a copy of the fire report but found it “too painful to read.”
“I just know that Tommy was doing what he’s wanted to do since he was 18,” she said. “He saved lives and that cannot be forgotten. I hate that I don’t have my son, but I don’t want to leave fault with someone else.”
On Monday, Wharton Fire Chief Anthony Abbott said the department has instituted new risk analysis procedures to avoid endangering firefighters in the future. Abbott replaced Bobby Barnett, the chief in charge of fighting the egg farm fire, who retired in January.
“Araguz and another firefighter were sent inside the warehouse to try to cut off the fire and save the offices — the business portion, where they have their files,” Abbott said. One firefighter rescued
While not wanting to sound like a “Monday morning quarterback,” he said, “I would have seen it as a defensive fire and not sent anybody inside. Just written that part off, let it burn to the ground and save the rest of the structures.”
The farm workers had already evacuated the facilities when firefighters arrived.
The state report documented how Araguz and fellow firefighter Juan Cano became disoriented after pulling a fire hose into the dense smoke and heat in the warehouse. Somehow they lost their hose and radio contact.
Eventually, Cano was rescued when firefighters heard him banging on a metal wall and cut him out, but attempts to find Araguz failed. His body was later discovered in a storage room 15 feet from where Cano escaped.
“Cano is healthy and strong, but has had an emotional reaction to this report that’s taken a toll. He has asked me to reassign him from captain to a regular firefighter,” Abbott said.
The warehouse fire was particularly risky, the report found, because of an inadequate water supply to fight it, lack of a sprinkler system, heavy wind and a large fuel load from stacks of egg cartons. Court fight not over
The firefighters were criticized for becoming separated from their hose, the lifeline needed to lead them out of the fire, and for failing to properly track the amount of air expended from their air packs.
On July 6, Nikki Araguz is expected to ask State District Judge Randy Clapp to reconsider his ruling that found she was not entitled to any part of her husband’s death benefits. Last month Clapp issued a summary judgment that her two-year marriage was invalid because Texas law prohibits same-sex marriage.
Nikki’s attorneys argue she had changed her gender in the late 1990s through hormone therapy and a name change even though she did not have the actual gender reassignment surgery until shortly after marrying Araguz.
Family members and attorneys representing Araguz’s children, ages 7 and 10, argue the petition is reiterating the same tired arguments already rejected by the court.
“This is plowing no new ground and only a formality for an appeal and keeps the money tied up so the kids don’t get what they need,” said Longoria’s attorney, Chad Ellis. “It’s all about the money.”