Mechy Fernández Wright, who arrived in Tampa with her family from Cuba in 1966 at age 13, was the first woman hired by the Tampa Fire Department (now called Tampa Fire Rescue). She joined in 1978 and served as a firefighter, paramedic and fire investigator, then worked in fire prevention as public education officer and finally as fire inspector of new construction.
After retiring in 1998, she earned a master’s degree in behavior analysis and spent 13 years helping people with developmental disabilities, autism and behavior problems.
Wright, 69, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about her experiences investigating fires, one of them so tragic that the images haunt her still.
Did you experience prejudice, sexual harassment?
When I was hired, knowing that I was the first, I knew that I was going to encounter both. There were people that didn’t feel that I belonged there. There were individuals that tried to take advantage of the situation. But my position was from the beginning: I came from Cuba as a refugee. Started school five days after I got here, didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, and I survived. I could survive this fire department. So that’s the mentality that I went in with.
What memories have stuck with you?
The most memorable by far is the worst fire that we had in the city of Tampa, where we had six children die. … That was June 16, 1984, Palmetto Street fire. As an investigator, you station at the main headquarters, Fire Station One. Dispatch calls us on what we call the red phone anytime we have an alarm. And it was shortly before 1 a.m. -- you’re sound asleep and then go from zero to one thousand in a second. It was reporting a two-story wooden structure fully (engulfed), with someone trapped inside, So that’s how the call came in. …
It was really tough. By then I had been an investigator for over a year and I had seen a number of fires, even I had some fire victims that passed.. But nothing like this one, when you arrive at the scene and you see a… mom on her knees, wailing, and her children are inside. And the firefighters couldn’t go in. They had to put the fire out because it was so involved by the time we arrived. …
This fire I worked by myself as an investigator until the next morning. My relief came and a whole crew of investigators showed up. ...
When I left I had done what I needed to do, get upstairs on a ladder through a window to take… photographs of the bodies, do measuring, how far were they from the door. All that all night long, seven hours of that, doing diagrams of where the bodies were found. On the bed, next to the bed, I found four children in rooms. I found two that were burned beyond recognition at the top of the stairs trying to escape. So it was a very involved, intense investigation. …
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The problem was that that investigation had been mishandled because they determined that the fire had been of electrical origin, and they put that information out and then found out that there was no power to the house; it had been cut out the month before. So then it became suspicious, and then the house was demolished before investigated any further. So we never did find out the true cause of that fire. …
The fire chief was fired, the fire marshal was fired, my supervisor of investigations was demoted to firefighter. And the arson task force was created, so nobody would have to go through again what I went through.
Did they have an emotional trauma therapy group organized at the time?
Not at that time. Maybe a year or two after that a team was put together. I never had any counseling… no one really talked to me about this fire. You know, the memories – I see those children still.
You also saw first-hand the value of smoke detectors, you say. What happened?
We had a building fire where a dad, mom and young son escaped because they heard the smoke detector go off. But when they went outside the mom realized that dad had not grabbed the 16-month-old baby, and she ran back in. They were both severely burned and transported to the burn center at (Tampa General Hospital), but they survived. And that whole family would have perished if it was not for a smoke detector.
How do you investigate a fire?
Investigations is really a fascinating job because you reconstruct a fire scene and the series of events through Interviewing. When you first arrive at the scene, the firefighters are usually extinguishing the fire, so the first you do, you interview the owner, the occupant, the neighbor, the witness, anybody that’s in the surrounding vicinity of that scene.
You start on the exterior with initial evidence of what happened to the structure, where is the most damage, and you work your way into the structure after the fire has been extinguished... to find the hottest point, the point of origin, which would be indicated by the deepest charring in the wood, patterns that have changed, like measurable patterns… the milking or distortion of materials. If you have a lamp with lampshade, and the fire started on this one side of that room, the lampshade is going to be distorted towards the fire, So you have a lot of patterns and physical evidence that indicates where the point of origin might be. And that’s how you start out, investigating that area.
How do you determine whether an arsonist started the fire?
You start ruling out things. You check for the electrical, you check fuses, you check for wire beading. You check for demarcations on the ground, you see if there’s any patterns or anything that doesn’t seem right, if they were suspicious, if there were, like, boxes or papers stacked right where the fire started, and there’s no reason for them to be there, that is suspicious. You just start by process of elimination, ruling out accidental causes until all the accidental causes were not present, and then it becomes a suspicious fire. Of course you’ve got to dig the scene, which takes some time to do to get to the bottom of the area that you believe is the point of origin where you can collect evidence and send it to the labs to be analyzed.