Public meeting on fire safety held in Newburgh following death of 64-year-old woman in fire
By Blaise Gomez and Diane Caruso
The wounds run deep in Newburgh when it comes to how beloved 64-year-old resident Debra Benedict died.
The City of Newburgh’s cost-saving decision to lower the required number of firefighters to seven rescuers on duty is continuing to cause tension – one month after the fatal fire that some say could have been prevented.
The tragedy has residents and former leaders vehemently questioning the city’s safety – after a cost-saving move in January lowering the number of firefighters on duty from 10 to seven.
There were more fire department staffing problems over the weekend.
One of the fire department trucks broke down on Sunday, leaving three firefighters to cover the entire city, according to IAFF Local 589.
The firefighters union posted a picture of the truck being towed on Facebook.
Union representatives say when Benedict died, the first four firefighters on scene were met with flames shooting from windows and couldn’t get a ladder up to rescue her until the remaining three firefighters arrived with the department’s water truck.
They say by then it was too late for Benedict.
City Mayor Torrance Harvey disagrees with the sequence of events and says Benedict’s death was not caused by a manpower problem.
Harvey says the city is above state minimum staffing levels for its size.
Newburgh has paid more than $1 million a year in fire department overtime – even with double the amount of firefighters a few years ago, according to city payroll records.
Harvey says officials want to hire part-time firefighters and bring on volunteers.
Newburgh officials are also looking at ways to tighten city codes since many fire safety upgrades are not currently required on older buildings, like the one Benedict lived in.
A public meeting in Newburgh Monday night focused on fire safety within the city.
Things at the meeting got heated when the Newburgh mayor had one man, an apparent Newburgh city employee, escorted out by police because he said the city had blood on its hands from the fatal fire that he felt was from being short staffed.
That man, called Mr. Miles, was one of about a dozen who voiced their fire safety concerns over low manpower and asked the city to restore staffing levels.
The sons of Debra Benedict, the 64-year-old woman who died in the fire last month, were at the City Council meeting Monday night.
"I was born and raised up here and it makes feel disgusted that this was allowed to happen to my mother. And now I've got my brother standing here because of firefighters, what they were able to do for my family," said James Benedict.
"I plead with y'all. I plead with y'all to listen to what your fire department has to say, take what they have to say into consideration," said Justin Benedict.
City Manager Todd Venning addressed the deadly June fire, saying officials found a number of issues contributed to the fatal incident, not manpower levels and that "fire safety is a serious matter."
The mayor said “public safety is their No. 1 priority,” and “a compromise must be reached.”