Report On Va. Firefighter's Death Cites Failures, Icy Road Conditions

9:52 PM, Sep 11, 2012   |    comments
Zachary Whitacre
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(WUSA) -- A NIOSH report on the death of Virginia firefighter Zachary Whitacre finds several factors contributed to his death, including failure to check the apparatus before leaving the scene and inadequate communications between the driver (Whitacre's father) and Whitacre.


The 21-year-old volunteer firefighter from the Gore Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company in Virginia was killed on February 13,2011 when the 1200 gallon tanker truck he was riding on crashed into a bank. The tanker was going to fetch water to fight a house fire in neighboring Capon Bridge, West Virginia. 

Whitacre was thrown from the rear of the truck, which was being driven by his father Donald Whitacre, according to West Virginia State Police.

They had just delivered water to fight a fire and were going to Capon Bridge to get another load of water. Donald Whitacre lost control on U.S. Route 50 and the truck hit a steep bank. Zach Whitacre was thrown from the rear of the truck, police said. A police press release noted icy conditions at the time.

The NIOSH report says the 21-year-old Whitacre fell from the tailboard of a fire department tanker and had guided the driver to back up the tanker with its tailboard near the dump tank. 

The report then reads: "The driver of Tanker 14 stayed in the driver's seat and watched the water gauge indicator lights on the pump panel through his side mirror. 

The victim, located on the tailboard, operated the dump valve to fill the folding tank. When the driver saw the tank-empty light flash, he left the fire scene to go to the water source to refill the tanker.

Unknown to the Tanker 14 driver, another tanker (Tanker 9) had inadvertently dropped approximately 1,500 gallons of water on the roadway while also responding to the incident. Tanker 9 had reported the inadvertent drop to their dispatcher, but Tanker 14 had not heard this communication. As Tanker 14 traveled this same roadway en route to the water source, it hit a patch of black ice that had resulted from the inadvertent water drop. The Tanker 14 driver lost control and the tanker spun around a number of times before impacting a berm on the shoulder of the roadway (see Photo 1 and Photo 2). The Tanker 14 driver was injured but was able to radio for help and crawl out of the passenger side door. The driver then saw the victim lying unresponsive in the roadway. "

The report also lists unintentional discharge of water onto roadway in freezing conditions, Ice on roadway and fire department communication interoperability as contributing factors in the tragedy. 

To avoid such a tragedy in the future, the report lists several recommendations including ensuring that firefighters and driver/operators are trained for using apparatus and equipment, that fire fighters from different departments can communicate with each other via radio and that fire departments should consider installing rear view cameras with monitors inside the cab.

Zachary Whitacre, a graduate of James Wood High School, was in training to become a full member of the Gore Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company.

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