Investigating the Death of a Firefighter; Closer Look at the Numbers in Iowa

Behind The News
January 4, 2008 1:49:33 PM PST
They put their lives on the line everyday, and every time the call comes in. They are a different breed, firefighters. While the rest of us do our best to get out of buildings that are on fire, firefighters do their best to try to get in. And when one of them dies - it's big news. Too many have died recently, and when they are killed on the job, it's a time for important reflection from fire experts. Could the death have been prevented? If so, how? What can we learn so this doesn't happen again?

They are critical questions. When 343 New York firefighters died on Sept. 11 - the most horrific mass firefighter death toll in U.S. history - the questions came fast and furious, and the answers were ugly. Some of the problems have been addressed; many have not yet been fixed. So there's this sword still raised in the air, just waiting to come down. Everyone in the field knows it.

When two firefighters died at the Deutsche Bank building near Ground Zero over the summer, once again questions came fast and furious, and the answers were just as ugly. Poor record keeping on inspections, poorly conducted inspections, mismanagement of information, poor oversight for a building that was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Tonight there are new questions being raised about the death last night of FDNY Lt. John Martinson, at a fire at an apartment building in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

We led our 11 p.m. newscast with the story -- two stories in fact. As an aside, I got into a spirited discussion with a very close friend who works on a national newscast. She thought we should have led our news with the Barack Obama victory in Iowa. It was history, she insisted. And she was right, it was history.

But for a news organization that covers the 20 million-plus population in the New York Metro area -- the tri-state as we call it -- the death of a firefighter trumps most other stories.

And tonight, we're focusing once again on Lt. Martinson's death. The initial reports last night were that he died of cardiac arrest fighting a one-room fire on the 14th floor of an apartment building. But this afternoon, the Medical Examiner's office told us that the 40-year-old, 14-year veteran and former police officer died of smoke inhalation and thermal burns. Not a heart attack.

The explanation raises far more questions than it should. And we do not have any good answers, at least not at this writing. How is it that Martinson didn't have an air mask on (the FDNY calls it a Scott Pak)? Did he have one and somehow it came or fell off? Did it malfunction? Was it defective? Did he go into the building without one?

Understandably, the first order of business for the FDNY is to deal with the death and the subsequent trauma in the ranks. But these are important questions to be answered. And we are trying to get to them. Tim Fleischer is covering the story for us, tonight at 11.

Also at 11, we will have a preview of tomorrow night's big debate in New Hampshire. I should say "debates" - because there are two of them. Charlie Gibson will moderate first the Democratic Party candidates debate, then moderate the debate among the Republican Party candidates.

Coming after last night's Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire debates should be fascinating. And Charlie is doing something different. He's going to seat them in a semi-circle, not at podiums all lined up. And after the first debate, he's going to ask all the candidates, from both parties, to come on stage and greet each other. A nice gesture, me thinks.

The victory of Obama should not be either overstated or understated. In terms of number of delegates, the victory isn't that significant. But in terms of momentum - it might be. That a black man won so decisive a percentage victory in such a white state is impressive. And the freshman Senator from Illinois -- who four years ago was a state senator - beat Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in decisive fashion.

Here are some basic stats from the entrance poll:

*Obama beat Clinton among women 35% to 30%

*Obama beat Edwards among voters in union households 30%-24%

*Obama beat Clinton and Edwards among voters of almost every income level (Obama and Clinton tied among voters who make $15-30,000)

*As many voters age 17-29 as voters 65 and older participated last night -- in previous years senior participation has been 5-times greater than younger voters.

*Obama beat Edwards and Clinton among voters who want change (51%-20%-19%)

*Despite countless attacks and hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative mail, TV, and radio, Obama beat Clinton and Edwards (34%-30%-27%) among voters who say health care is the most important issue

*Obama won among those who said the economy was the most important issue (36%-26%-26%)

*Obama won over Clinton and Edwards (35%-26%-17%) among those who said Iraq was the most important issue

*Won across the ideological spectrum ? winning among liberals, moderates and conservatives

*Won among high income and lower income voters among voters with household income below $50,000 (34%-32%-19%) and among those over $50,000 (41%-19%-28%)

*Also won among the 82% of voters who said Pakistan was "very or somewhat important"

Fascinating stats. We're sending our political reporter Dave Evans and N.J. Burkett to New Hampshire to cover the primary next week . And tonight, Jen Maxfield previews the debate.

Also at 11, a Brooklyn College student thought he was getting a free, one-day pass to the gym. But it nearly cost him $4,000. It didn't because he called Tappy Phillips and got 7 On Your Side. Tappy's story is a warning worth listening to.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's weekend AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports, including a preview of this weekend's Giants playoff game. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.

BILL RITTER


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