Report sheds light on moments before Townsend's death

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DENISON, Tex. -- It's been eight months since Denison firefighter Phillip Townsend died. An awning collapsed as Townsend fought the flames. Now the State Fire Marshal has released a report, and the findings in the moments that led up to Townsend's death are raising concern.

The State Fire Marshal recently released this report. It includes recommendations based on nationally recognized consensus standards and safety practices.

Details in the report are only recommendations.


The Fire Marshal's office says it's up to the city of Denison and the fire department to follow through on any other actions officials deem necessary.

What started out as a normal Saturday on December 30, 2006, quickly changed into a day firefighters across the area will not soon forget.

At 8:42 am, a small strip mall in the 900 block of South Crockett Avenue catches fire. Two officers, four firefighters (including Phillip Townsend and his father Larry), Chief Gordon Weger and Assistant Chief Don Coley are all dispatched to the scene. But according to the State Fire Marshal's report, a command post is never identified and the incident commander not stationary. Both are findings that State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado says should be analyzed by the department. “The report that we did recommends additional training and other options to prevent this type of tragedy in the future.”

Within minutes, the fire itself is located and everyone is forced out of the building. The flames so intense, firefighters are forced into defensive mode. The building was declared un-safe and officials on the scene, according to the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, had to provide firefighter accountability. All six men on scene were accounted for, but according to the report, firefighters say their radios weren't working properly. Despite the call from the captain on the scene to go into defensive mode, the official word was never heard. “We did have a finding that identified the shift in tactic from offensive to defensive was not clearly identified to all fire fighters on scene.”

Firefighters fought flames from outside the building for several minutes. At 8:59 a.m., Assistant Chief Don Coley arrives on scene and reports for duty. Sometime in next few minutes, Chief Gordon Weger arrives, but according to the report, Weger doesn't call-in by radio nor to the incident commander.

The report also states Chief Weger wasn't wearing essential gear. Maldonado says, “In the report we did find that the fire chief was not wearing the proper protective equipment and of course there is a recommendation to not only comply with federal standards, but with local standards which their own guidelines state they should be in personal protective equipment.”

Weger does, however, start giving orders and sends first year fire fighter Phillip Townsend to the front of the building where rolls of roofing paper were producing heavy smoke. “Once the operations were deemed to be defensive mode of tactics, then firefighters should not have re-entered into a collapse zone and so as the report indicates they should not have been with in the collapse zone.”

At this point Phillip Townsend's low air alarm begins sound. Weger concerned for one of his own, sends Townsend to replenish his low air supply. It was Townsend's father, Larry, who helped his son replace that air supply, re-suit him, and watched him walk back into the fire. Seconds later, the awning on the roof collapses without warning, trapping both Townsend and Weger. “The firefighters were operating in this collapse zone and they should not have been there.”

Townsend is located first near a wall of the building. He was found in a sitting position- pinned between the collapsed overhang and the wall. Phillip Townsend was taken to Texoma Medical Center (just minutes away), but it was too late, he was pronounced dead at 9:51am.

We asked Denison Fire Chief Gordon Weger, City Attorney Tom Aikens, and City Manager Larry Cruise for on camera interviews, but all three declined our request.