Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The families of three firefighters killed in a 2016 blaze and several of their injured colleagues filed a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Wilmington on Thursday accusing four former officials of constitutional violations in enacting a controversial policy that allegedly prevented needed water from arriving.

The 75-page complaint, filed in Delaware federal court, blamed former Mayors Dennis P. Williams and James M. Baker, as well as former fire Chiefs Anthony S. Goode and William Patrick Jr., of implementing a citywide policy known as “rolling bypass.”

According to the lawsuit, the officials ignored warnings about the policy from city council members and a firefighters union. The policy mandated that fire engines be shut down in the event of staffing shortages instead of paying overtime to firefighters to work the shift. The lawsuit seeks to hold the former officials liable for “substantive due process” violations under the state-created danger doctrine.

“Blood is on the hands of Mayors Baker and Williams who despite repeated warnings knowingly caused the deaths of three firefighting heroes who gave their lives rushing into a burning building seeking to rescue civilians believed trapped in the inferno. They were warned repeatedly that deaths would follow, but with a cold heart they continued their shocking policies,” plaintiffs’ co-counsel Thomas S. Neuberger said in a statement.

Attorneys announced the lawsuit Thursday morning at a press conference in Wilmington.

The filing stems from a Sept. 24, 2016, residential fire in Canby Park, which killed Lt. Christopher Leach and senior firefighters Jerry Fickes and Ardythe Hope, and seriously injured three others. The closest engine to the blaze was shut down, leaving the firefighters without the water they needed to combat the blaze in the rear basement of the home, according to the complaint.

Leach died on the scene, and Fickes succumbed to his injuries later that night. Hope, who joined the Wilmington Fire Department in 1993, died several months later from thermal burns. Current Mayor Mike Purzycki said a grand jury has charged a suspect with multiple counts of murder and arson in connection with the fire.

The lawsuit seeks punitive and compensatory damages, and a jury trial against the city and the individual defendants.

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

Purzycki, who is not named in the complaint, responded Thursday afternoon with a strongly worded statement that accused the plaintiffs’ attorneys of misrepresenting the facts of the case in order to obtain a “quick cash settlement” from the city.

If so, they are profoundly mistaken. I assure you that Wilmington will aggressively defend this case,” he said.

Purzycki said the city was “very sad about the loss of our firefighters,” and expected to pay more than $11 million to the families and the surviving firefighters to cover medical costs and related benefits.

He denied allegations that rolling bypass and staffing decisions contributed to the tragedy.

“It is easy to file a lawsuit, and a complaint is just a list of allegations written by the plaintiffs’ lawyers,” Purzycki said. “Those allegations are not facts, and they are not evidence. As the plaintiffs and their lawyers will learn, facts matter. The actual facts in this case differ sharply from the narrative contained in the complaint.”   

The complaint was filed by attorneys from The Neuberger Firm and Jacobs & Crumplar, the two Wilmington law firms that last year sued state officials over alleged lapses that led to the deadly prison takeover at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna. The state settled that lawsuit in December, agreeing to pay more than $7.5 million to the victims and their families.

Thursday’s lawsuit alleges that the officials used their positions to create a foreseeable risk of injury and death, and it cites repeated warning from the Wilmington firefighters union that the rolling bypass policy placed firefighters in harm’s way.

Many of the allegations target Goode, who served as the fire chief under Williams from 2013 to January 2017. According to the complaint, Goode was incensed by criticisms over his policies and threatened to punish firefighters for speaking out. The filing accuses Goode of acting with “malice” and details multiple instances in which he was hostile toward the city’s firefighters, telling them in meetings that, “I don’t care if you die in a fire.”

Goode, who is no longer with the fire department, was indicted in December 2017 by a state grand jury on four unrelated felony charges, including racketeering and theft. Those charges are still pending.

The plaintiffs are represented by Thomas S. Neuberger and Stephen J. Neuberger of the Neuberger Firm, and Thomas C. Crumplar and Raeann Warner of Jacobs & Crumplar.

The case, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, is captioned Speakman v. Williams.