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Pants on Fire 

How the San Francisco Fire Department turned a manageable house fire into a lethal disaster -- and then tried to cover up its firefighting mistakes

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
In her one-year career with the Fire Department, Melanie Stapper, more than anything else, wanted to belong. A sturdy woman with thick shoulders, Stapper was willing to lose 17 pounds when she didn't meet the department's weight requirements the first time she applied. When she was accepted the next year and successfully completed her training, she says she felt like she had finally found a job that appealed to her on all levels. "I was working my body, making intelligent decisions, and helping people," she says. "I was totally fulfilled."Still, Stapper says, it was difficult to become "one of the guys," especially with a few angry-white-male types hanging around her. So she made every effort not to show weakness. When she was doubled over with a pain in her stomach, for example, she didn't ask anyone from her station to take her home. "I could just hear the guys razzing me," she says. "I didn't want to hear, "Poor little Mel had to go home 'cause she had a stomachache.'" She hailed a cab to the hospital instead; there, she was diagnosed with appendicitis.

It took two months for Stapper to recover. Her bosses wanted to bring her back slowly, so they assigned her to the sleepiest fire station in the city, atop Diamond Heights, where the joke went that the crew members would see every fire in the city, even if they never had to go to any of them.

A storm raged bitterly on Stapper's first night back at work, in March 1995, with wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour. But inside, the station was warm and cozy and filled with the background noise of rain on the roof. Stapper remembers completing a crossword puzzle, impressing her comrades by doing it in ink -- no room for mistakes. Then everyone settled down to sleep.

The call came well past midnight. A house down the road was burning. Though it was her first night back and she was a rookie, Stapper says she felt calm as she arrived at the scene. "I was just going to work," she says. "You get a call, you gotta go. It was nothing out of the ordinary."

Soon after Stapper and her colleagues went into the house through the garage, they discovered that the fire was, in fact, quite extraordinary. Winds roaring up Glen Canyon were blasting into an open sliding-glass door at the back of the house, creating a chimney effect that pushed the fire straight toward the crew, who had entered through the garage door. Within minutes, Stapper's commander called for a retreat. As the members of the crew tried to back out, they discovered the garage door closed behind them. There was a blast of fire, then another. Thick black smoke filled the garage.

In the next 10 minutes or so, Lt. Louis Mambretti, a 25-year veteran, died, and Stapper suffered oxygen deprivation that put her into a coma, from which she would emerge months later, blind and brain-damaged. By morning, nine others who were fighting the fire had been injured. The blaze, which required 92 firefighters to extinguish, came to be considered one of the worst tragedies in the recent history of the San Francisco Fire Department.

What happened in those 10 minutes remains in dispute. A departmental investigation cleared the firefighters on duty that night of any wrongdoing, blaming the death and injuries on extreme weather conditions and the inexplicable closing of the garage door behind the crew.

In 1996, Stapper filed a lawsuit against the garage door manufacturer, Genie Corp., for millions of dollars, alleging the company's product was defective. She didn't sue to get rich, she says. She wanted answers. "I wanted the right thing done," she says. "I put my faith in the jury system. If there was anyone to blame, let the jury decide."

But after all the facts were laid out and every witness had spoken at the trial earlier this year, the jury settled on another explanation for what had happened that night: Stapper's comrades had simply failed her.

Her chief apparently forgot she and her colleagues were in the building. The pump operator incorrectly attached the crew's hose to the hydrant, which may have prevented crew members from keeping the fire at bay. By botching these and a few other basic procedures, the jury determined that Stapper's comrades turned a dangerous but manageable fire into a full-blown and lethal fiasco.

This is not what Fire Department officials wanted to hear. In fact, the department had gone out of its way to avoid this version of the story, first by glossing over some of the facts in the incident report, then by helping Stapper try to pin the blame on Genie during the trial. No one likes to admit error, especially if the error has caused loss of a life. But in this case, department officials had an added financial incentive to obscure the facts: If a jury found the manufacturer of the garage door opener to blame for the disaster, the city would collect the money it paid for Stapper's medical expenses -- and probably more. Stapper's lawsuit began as an attempt to hold a supposedly negligent corporation responsible. The suit revealed a more complicated story about how the Fire Department deals with loss, and how it deals with mistakes, especially when those mistakes could significantly affect the city's bottom line.Following the fire, Stapper suddenly became the center of attention. Lying on her back, her face swollen and shiny, she teetered on the brink of death for weeks. The heat had inflicted third-degree burns on almost half her body. The sweat in her pants had scalded the inside of her legs; the metal buttons of her uniform left permanent brands.For weeks, Stapper's room was filled with colleagues trembling at the sight of her. There were vases everywhere erupting with flowers, and metal tins filled with cookies. Stapper received hundreds of letters from people she didn't know. At last, she had gained entrance to the firefighting family.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs


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