Suit Over Fireman's Gear Settled for $2.8 Million in New Jersey

Updated: 05-24-2005 10:31:43 AM

Philadelphia Inquirer via Associated Press

A federal judge in Camden yesterday approved a $2.8 million settlement between the family of a West Deptford firefighter who died after a 2001 house fire and the makers of his protective clothing.

Patti Heenan had argued in a lawsuit that her husband's gear had a defect that led to his death. Jimmy Heenan, 37, a volunteer firefighter, fell through the kitchen floor and was trapped in the basement of a burning house Jan. 1, 2001. He died of his injuries about three months later.

"We're just happy to have some closure," Patti Heenan said after the hearing. "It's been a long haul. Four long years."

After paying fees and other costs, she and her two sons will split about $1.4 million. James, 20, works for a dredging operation, the same line of work as his father's. Michael, 18, is enlisting in the Army.

"Me and my brother both feel we'd give all the money back to have our dad back," Michael Heenan said.

The lawsuit argued that fibers in the gear broke down, creating a "screen-door effect" that allowed heat to enter. While trapped in the basement, Heenan was being "steamed to death," family lawyer William Tambussi said this year.

Several other fire departments around the country have complained about the gear, known by the brand name Securitex and made with a lightweight material called Duralite.

The complaints prompted the International Association of Fire Fighters to ask the government to study the gear in 2002. That study, conducted at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles, found that fibers in Duralite would fail under certain conditions.

In a letter last year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said it would issue a warning about Duralite gear. So far, no action has been taken on the study.

This year, Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the institute, said the study was undergoing a peer review. He did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

The manufacturer of Duralite gear, the French company Bacou-Dalloz, blasted the study as "inherently flawed" and said firefighters had used 90,000 sets of Duralite gear in the previous 11 years.

Attorneys for the manufacturers said no gear could have saved Heenan's life after he fell through the floor. They also noted that a state investigation into Heenan's death blamed firefighting tactics and other problems, not his gear.

By settling the lawsuit, the manufacturers are not admitting the gear had a defect.

Patti Heenan said she planned to finish basic courses on becoming a fire investigator this summer, then attend Camden County College. Eventually, she could work as an investigator for the state or insurance companies.

"Or start your own business," she said. "Be my own expert."

Distributed by the Associated Press