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Wilmington firefighters sue former mayors, city

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Atty. Tom Neuberger, associates and the plaintiffs

Firefighters who survived the deadly 2016 Canby Park fire in Wilmington have joined family members of those who died in filing a federal lawsuit against former Wilmington officials.

The complaint filed Thursday morning names former Wilmington Mayors Dennis Williams and James Baker, former Fire Chiefs Anthony Goode and William Patrick, as well as the City of Wilmington.

The suit seeks separate money awards for eight children, one widow, three estates and three surviving firefighters.

Co-counsel Tom Neuberger claims the deadliness of the fire, which killed Lt. Christopher Leach and Sr. Firefighters Jerry Fickes and Ardy Hope, is a result of the City’s policy of conditional company closures—known as rolling bypasses.

The policy, which Neuberger says officially started in 2009, temporarily takes fire engines and crews out of commission to cut costs—including overtime.

In the case of the Canby Park fire, Neuberger claims two of the deaths resulted from the fact that the closest engine with water tanks and a hose was temporarily taken offline at the time.

Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Surviving firefighter Terry Tate stands with children of two firefighters who died in the blaze

“The ability to put over 5,200 gallons of water immediately on the heart of that fire was denied,” he said.

Neuberger says the suit also cites deliberate understaffing of the Wilmington Fire Department in 2013 and the doubling of the number of firefighters working desk jobs rather than on the front lines in 2015.

“All this would have been prevented if the City had allowed firefighters to do their jobs, and get water to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible,” said Neuberger.

Wilmington firefighter union President Kevin Turner says the current administration has ignored recommendations to end rolling bypasses.

“Mayor Purzycki and Fire Chief Donohue continue to place money over safety,” he said.

A city spokesperson confirmed that conditional company closure is Wilmington’s current policy.

In a statement, Mayor Purzycki said the city will “aggressively” defend the case, and that “the actual facts in this case differ sharply from the narrative contained in the complaint.”

He adds that “this lawsuit is not an appropriate response to this tragedy.”

An investigation into the deaths of the firefighters by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has yet to be released.

Neuberger also represented correctional officer survivors and the estate of Sgt. Steven Floyd in a suit against former Governors Markell and Minner regarding the  2017 inmate uprising at the Vaughn Correctional Center.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.