AURORA, Colo. — More than four years after an explosion and subsequent fire at the Heather Gardens retirement community that killed an 82-year-old woman, a former Aurora Fire deputy chief says the department worked to cover up missteps it made during the incident.
Steve McInerny, who was second in command with the Aurora Fire Department from 2018 to 2021, told Denver7 Investigates the department made significant mistakes on November 16, 2018, when a ruptured gas line triggered a massive explosion that killed Carol Ross in her home.
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McInerny said the department should have called the city’s duty hazmat team, evacuated the community prior to the explosion and should not have told Ross and others that it was safe to return to their homes.
He also said the department denied knowing of a video from a GoPro camera worn by a firefighter during the response to the explosion when it was requested by Denver7 Investigates in late 2020. Denver7 was later able to obtain that video.
“I think that people deserve the truth, plain and simple,” McInerny said. “This was a cover up A to Z, and firefighters were hurt, people were killed, civilians were injured, property was lost. I think people deserve to really know what happened at Heather Gardens.”
McInerny described the scene shown in the GoPro video as “chaotic” with a lot of hazards. He said not initiating searches for more than an hour into the incident was a failure, but that information never came to light.
“I think the fire department was spinning a story that we did everything humanly possible to prevent the loss of life and property,” he said. “Major mistakes were made.”
McInerny’s comments come roughly two months after a jury awarded $30 million to Ross’ family in a lawsuit.
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During the verdict, the jury determined that Aurora Fire was the second-most culpable entity after the contracting company that punctured the gas line. Aurora Fire was not named in the lawsuit, but shouldered 18% of the blame, according to the jury. Bohenworks, the company that dug the whole and punctured the gas pipe, received 26% of the blame.
Juror Dean Adams said he does not believe Ross should have died that night and questioned the actions of the fire department, noting that testimony disclosed that a firefighter told Ross to go back into her home.
“I’ll never understand. Not one person thought to start an evacuation,” he said. “It’s beyond my comprehension … There are questions that need answers.”
Adams said he believes the fire department should reopen its investigation into its actions that day.
In the days following the explosion and fire, McInerny was tasked with investigating the fire department’s performance.
He said the battalion chief and ladder company on scene left early and downgraded the incident. Roughly 45 minutes later, the explosion occurred. In all, there were more than a dozen failed processes and it was covered up, he said.
“They kept the truth from the public, and in this case, from the Heather Gardens residents,” McInerny said. “They were lied to.”
McInerny said he was berated for saying mistakes were made and blamed this incident for his 2021 firing.
Officially, the City of Aurora said McInerny was fired due to a “number of policy violations” after an internal investigation.
However, Aurora Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Gardner said he considers McInerny credible and knew him to be an advocate for firefighters. He believes that the jury’s verdict in the lawsuit and McInerny’s claims demonstrate cause for the fire department to revisit what happened at Heather Gardens.
“To me, it says that some mistakes were made,” Gardner said. “To me, it says that some of the orders given by the fire department may have been wrong.”
The City of Aurora declined to make Fire Chief Alec Oughton available for an interview, saying he does not know all the facets of what happened. Oughton was not the chief at the time of the incident and only joined the department in January.
In a written statement, Oughton said he appreciates the concerns raised by the juror and that the post-incident analysis has resulted in a more robust response to gas leaks. New policies require the use of combustible gas detectors both inside and outside buildings. The department also now requires the hazmat team to respond to all significant gas leaks.
Statement from Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Alec Oughton
"The explosion in the Heather Gardens community was a challenging, dynamic, and volatile situation that resulted in a tragedy. It is truly heartbreaking, and I recognize that the event had an impact on so many people in our community. Because Aurora Fire Rescue (“AFR”) resources were on the scene when the explosion occurred, I can appreciate the concerns raised by the juror and the media coverage of what was heard during the recent civil trial. However, it is critically important to note that AFR and the city were not named defendants in that civil litigation and consequently did not have any opportunity to hear or see, or provide context about, any material presented by the plaintiff’s counsel or the legal teams who represented the named defendants.
I have taken time to review departmental documents related to the AFR response and the post-incident analysis (“PIA”) that was completed by the command staff. It appears that those documents led the Fire Chief and Executive Staff to enhance AFR’s response procedures for natural gas leaks. The result is a much more robust response to this call type. New policies outline the use of combustible gas detectors that can be used inside and outside structures. Additionally, gas leaks are now considered Hazardous Materials Emergencies and require our Hazmat Team, a group of specially trained experts, to respond to these incidents.
Analysis of a call like this, followed by operational and policy enhancements, represents best practices in the fire service anywhere across the country. In other words, fire and rescue departments should constantly seek ways to improve the service they provide to their community.
The efforts undertaken around continuous improvement reinforce my feeling that I have taken the helm of a fire and rescue department staffed with true professionals who are committed to providing the very best service for Aurora’s residents and visitors. To be clear, there is no finish line for continuous improvement, and this community has my word that AFR will continue to work tirelessly to provide the best care to all the people of Aurora."
McInerny said he feels vindicated by the jury’s verdict and does not regret his actions.
“They did a good job covering it up,” he said. “But I’m glad that the truth is finally out on what happened.”