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Case Dropped Against Out of Town Firefighters Who Helped at Tunnel Blaze

Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)

The case against two out-of-state firefighters facing obstruction charges for taking an emergency vehicle and entering East River Mountain Tunnel during a tractor-trailer blaze in July was dismissed Thursday.

Additionally, attorney Andrew Maier, who represents firefighter Virginia Price, 30, of Maine, is planning to ask the Mercer County Commission to issue a commendation to her and Colin Dunn, 30, of Maryland, for their efforts to help evacuate the tunnel and battle the blaze.

In a letter to Mercer County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Janet Williamson, Maier wrote that he spoke with Bluefield Fire Chief Jeff Warden, who served as incident command chief on the southern side of the tunnel during the fire, and Lt. John Lambert of the Green Valley-Glenwood Volunteer Fire Department. Maier stated that both men said they wanted no punishment for the out-of-state volunteers.

“He (Chief Warden) said that Dunn helped get 20 to 30 cars out of the tunnel,” Maier wrote.

First Report: MD volunteer firefighters charged with obstruction at West Virginia tunnel fire

Maier also alleges in the letter that Price was attacked from behind by an unknown firefighter who he says grabbed her and yanked her off an engine when she was retrieving a hand light.

“This was a chaotic (not euro ˜orderly’) scene in which five different fire departments from two states, who couldn’t always communicate, fought a fire one-half mile into a tunnel from two different ends,” Maier wrote. “Is this state really going to prosecute two very highly trained firefighters from other states who, acting as good Samaritans, stopped to offer assistance, particularly when one becomes a crime victim during the process and her assailant isn’t even sought? Is that the kind of state West Virginia is?”

In his letter to Williamson, Maier states the two firefighters were traveling through the northbound tube on the evening of the fire, and “were about 10 cars back from the burning truck.” He said the two exited on the northern end “and returned to the south end to offer assistance, which was gratefully accepted.”

Mercer County Emergency Management Director Tim Farley acknowledged the scene at the tunnel fire was chaotic, but said that Price stole his vehicle, which was parked on the northern side of the tunnel, after she and Dunn became separated.

Accounts from officials and the out-of-state volunteers indicate visibility in the tunnel dropped to zero after ventilation fans went off and the tube filled with smoke.

“That was a very dangerous situation,” Farley said. “It could have been deadly, the smoke had banked so far down.”

Farley said they were also unable to communicate with firefighters who were inside the tunnel.

Farley said he did not know if Dunn and Price helped with the evacuation of cars from the tunnel. He said when he first saw Price on the northern side of the tunnel she was wearing street clothes and a breathing apparatus from a Virginia-side fire department.

“Apparently, they (Price and Dunn) got separated sometime during the process of the initial attack,” Farley said. “How she got on the West Virginia side I don’t have a clue.”

Meanwhile, Dunn had made it back out of the tunnel to the Virginia side.

Farley said he saw someone approach Price and take the breathing apparatus, and then he saw her walk over to some of the parked vehicles belonging to tunnel employees and attempt to enter the locked vehicles.

Farley said his Mercer County Emergency Management truck was also parked on the northern side, with the engine running and red lights flashing. “The next thing I know it’s going through the southbound tunnel and I don’t know who’s driving it.”

At this time, the right lane in the southbound tunnel was clear for emergency responders to use, but firefighters were in the left lane of the southbound tube battling the blaze.

“Those guys on the engines in the tunnel saw the truck and recognized the red lights as being my truck,” Farley said. “They commented, euro ˜Here comes Tim,’ and there is this lady driving. They said she went through about 80 miles and hour and created a hazard … She put a while lot of people in danger as far as I am concerned.”

(c)2014 Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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