Atty: Would-Be New York City Firefighter ‘Trained to Death’

November 19, 2009

A would-be New York firefighter died after collapsing during training because he was singled out to repeat a dangerously grueling exercise without oxygen and other basic rescue equipment, his widow said in a $10 million lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Jamel Sears passed a strenuous test that involved hauling a 100-pound dummy and running up and down stairs in heavy gear, but instructors made him repeat it more times than any of the other nearly 300 probationary firefighters in his 2008 class — even after some trainees fainted during the exercise, the lawsuit said.

And when the 33-year-old Navy veteran collapsed on Nov. 10, 2008, an instructor initially just told him to get up, the lawsuit said. When he ultimately was taken to a nearby room for treatment, the oxygen tank wasn’t working, forcing another trainee to fetch his medic’s gear from a parking lot, the lawsuit said. It said an ambulance took more than 15 minutes to get to the training site, on Randalls Island in the East River; Sears died at a hospital the next day.

“He was trained to death,” said Kenneth P. Thompson, a lawyer for Sears’ widow, Sherita. She is accusing the city and Fire Department of negligence, a labor law violation and racial discrimination, saying that Sears and a handful of other minorities had to repeat the 18-minute test more often than white trainees. Sears was black.

A city lawyer called Sears’ death “a tragic accident” and denied any discrimination in firefighter training.

“We train all of our firefighters equally and in a manner that equips them to become successful firefighters,” said Sosimo Fabian, a city attorney.

Sears was part of a trainee class the city trumpeted as the most diverse in the Fire Department’s history; 35 percent of the graduates were minorities.

The department is about 90 percent white in a city where most residents are minorities. A federal judge ruled this summer that the city had discriminated against minorities in hiring firefighters, citing recruitment exam results from 1999 to 2007.

Sears, a father of two, had wanted to be a firefighter since childhood, said the lawsuit, filed in a Bronx state court.

During training, he showed “an incredible commitment to become the best firefighter possible,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at Sears’ funeral. “He was always pushing himself to be quicker, stronger, sharper _ and he always had the belief that he could be.”

An autopsy showed Sears had a heart problem, but medical examiners said the primary cause of his death was dehydration complicated by strenuous exertion.

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