By Shelley Grieshop
WAPAKONETA -- A State Fire Marshal investigator testified in court via videotape Tuesday that there may have been a safer way to put out the silo fire that led to the deaths of two local firefighters in 2003.
Dennis Cummings of Van Wert, a veteran fire investigator, said introducing an inert gas -- such as liquid nitrogen -- into the silo at Hoge Lumber Co. in New Knoxville and then sealing off the structure, may have been safer than attempting to extinguish the fire.
"Until this incident, I was not aware of this method," Cummings testified on tape as jurors watched a television monitor. The investigator was not in the courtroom because he is away training arson dogs in Virginia this week.
Tuesday marked the second day of the civil trial in Auglaize County Common Pleas Court. The lawsuit was filed by Midwest Claims Service of Dayton, the insurance company for the village of New Bremen. Midwest is charging Hoge Lumber Co, its owner, John Hoge, and several employees with negligence before and after the fire began, as well as with destroying evidence.
Midwest seeks nearly $180,000 -- the amount the insurance company already paid the village for damaged fire equipment -- plus other expenses. Two New Bremen volunteer firefighters, Ken Jutte, 44, and John Garman, 40, were killed when the 71-foot-high concrete silo exploded during the early morning hours of Oct. 1, 2003, while the pair were attempting to douse the fire from above. A third firefighter, Scott Albers, who testified briefly Tuesday, was seriously injured in the explosion, as was John Hoge and his son, Jack.
The New Bremen department was called to the scene by New Knoxville Fire Chief Scott Schroer to provide mutual aid with an aerial truck.
During the videotaped deposition of Cummings, Midwest's attorney, Mike Neltner, asked if he thought the silo, dubbed #2 of three silos on the property, would have exploded whether the firefighters were there or not.
"It's my opinion it could have," he said.
In 2000, firefighters successfully battled a similar fire on the property in silo #3 by dousing it from the top to reduce the amount of dust built-up inside. At the same time, firefighters below removed woodchips and debris by the bucketfuls from an open hatch. The method worked and firefighters decided to try it again that fateful day, Cummings said firefighters told him during the investigation.
"They didn't realize they were making the spot hotter and creating a bigger void that caused the product inside to collapse," leading to the explosion, Cummings said during cross-examination by Hoge's attorney, Dave Patterson.
"And if the firefighters didn't know, then John Hoge, Jack Hoge, (and other employees) wouldn't have known either, would they?" Patterson asked Cummings, who quickly agreed with the statement.
Midwest claims John Hoge and his employees knew of hidden dangers facing the firefighters that day but failed to warn them.
"This was an accident, nobody planned this to happen," Cummings said.
"Including John Hoge and everybody else that's being sued by this (insurance) company?" Patterson asked Cummings.
"That's right, nobody," Cummings responded.
The fire marshal's office declared the cause of the fire and explosion to be accidental in a report released Nov. 19, 2003. The "highest probability of ignition" was a belt from a pulley in the basement of the silo, the release stated.
The explosion was a combination of backdraft, rapid ignition of the gaseous byproducts inside and dust explosion, the report stated.
Both sides disagree about whether silo #2, which was designed in part by John Hoge, was an oxygen-limiting silo or a conventional one. An oxygen-limiting type remains sealed, keeping oxygen from entering the structure. It is considered more likely to explode during a fire when oxygen is introduced and the air becomes unstable.
Cummings and John Hoge, who also testified Tuesday, said the silo had been used as a conventional silo "for some time" and at least one hatch door already was open at the base of the silo when firefighters arrived.
The domed concrete lid to the silo was blown off in the explosion. The large slab laid near the damaged silo for nearly three weeks until the State Fire Marshal's investigators gave John Hoge the OK to remove it.
The lid, which John Hoge and employees claim had an open hole at the center, was disposed of. However, John Hoge and his employees could not recall details on its disposal in testimony.
John Hoge and Cummings testified Tuesday that Midwest never contacted either of them about preserving evidence.
When questioned about the frequent trips firefighters made to Hoge Lumber through the years, John Hoge responded: "When you're in the lumber business and have a lot of dry lumber around, any fire can become a serious one."
During the cross-examination of Sharon DePriest, a claims supervisor for Midwest, it was revealed Midwest was aware of the explosion the day it occurred. DePriest testified she did not know if Midwest ever asked anyone for evidence until the lawsuit was filed in September 2004.
A witness for Midwest, who Hoge's attorneys have discredited as an expert in boat engineering not silo engineering, has so far been prevented from testifying by visiting Judge Judson LaMoure Shattuck.