Monday, May 13, 1996
Chief seeking accountability for fire deaths

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The fire was put out weeks ago. Its three little victims have been buried.

Life is supposed to go on.

But since it won't - ever - for those three helpless children, their senseless loss of life still burns Cincinnati Fire Chief Tom Steidel.

Even now, when the chief talks about the fire, his voice cracks with emotion. He pokes the air to make his point and his hands shake with rage. He swears. Then he criticizes himself for becoming "so involved, so emotional."

And then he swears again and insists he won't let people forget del the May 1 fire in Price Hill.

On that Wednesday morning, a 5-year-old boy with a history of playing with matches was locked up in an attic with his 3-year-old sister and their 18-month-old brother.

One floor below, their father - Anthony Edwards - was home from working the night shift. He wasn't babysitting. He was sleeping off the effects of downing a 40-ounce bottle of beer at 7:30 a.m.

While he snoozed, the kids played with fire. And, eventually, lost their lives.

'Failure of duty'

The attic had cardboard walls, no smoke-and-fire detector and 75 bottle rockets. The 5-year-old had some matches.

Fire broke out. A few rockets exploded. A call went out to 911. Fire trucks arrived in two minutes and 34 seconds.

"It was a veteran crew. They found the kids fast. Seconds save lives in this business. There were paramedics on the scene. They treated them immediately and took them to one of the best children's hospitals in the world," says the chief. "Everything went perfect."

Except the outcome. Three children died.

The chief went on TV that day. He did something rare for a public official. He blew his stack and did not mince words. He held the father responsible for his children's fate.

Chief Steidel was right to be angry. His department has given out 1,580 free fire detectors since September. Firefighters in Cincinnati will even come to your house and install a free detector or give you a new battery.

"We do all of this stuff to heighten awareness of fire safety," he says. "We beat the drum.

"But on that day all was for naught."

As a career firefighter with a passion for a job done well, Tom Steidel takes his duty seriously. When Cincinnati's fire chief encounters a parent sleeping while his children play with matches and fireworks, he finds him guilty of a "failure of duty."

Protecting the innocent

"You can't call this an accident," the chief insists. "I know some will say: 'He's suffered enough. He's lost his kids.' But, you can't walk away from the effects of his actions, which were three fatalities. Punitive measures must be taken."

The chief sees this as child protection. He's protecting the innocent in the same way Congress did with last week's passage of "Megan's Law," requiring local officials to notify the public when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood. In his mind, if parents won't or can't, the village must protect its children.

Acting on his beliefs, Chief Steidel met with police and prosecutors last week. He urged that charges be filed against the children's father.

"I'm not interested in what crime was committed or what the penalties are, as much as there is some accountability."

Response to the chief's stand has been overwhelming. When he walks to lunch on Fourth Street, he stops traffic. Strangers get out of their cars to thank him for speaking out. He had to leave the crush of well-wishers one recent night at Neon's in Over-the-Rhine after six off-duty cops told the bartender that the outspoken chief's drinks were on them.

Chief Steidel did not do this for pats on the back. Or the free drinks. He did it for the scene he keeps seeing in his mind.

"Three helpless kids up there in that attic, in all that smoke and flames, fending for themselves."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.