State probe into Morse death: Different stories, unwilling witnesses

Published: Dec. 23, 2021 at 5:52 PM EST
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MONTOUR FALLS, New York (WWNY) - A state investigation into the death of Watertown firefighter Peyton Morse includes conflicting statements from witnesses. Some of them didn’t want to talk to officials.

The 26-page report comes from the State Department of Labor’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH.

Morse, a 21-year-old Watertown firefighter recruit, experienced a medical emergency on March 3 at the State Fire Academy in Montour Falls. He died nine days later.

The report contains information from several witness interviews. Just weeks after Morse’s death, investigators spoke with 20 recruits. Nine of them were in Morse’s battalion.

But it wasn’t until six months after the incident when investigators spoke with the four state fire instructors on the job that day. The report states the instructors initially declined to be interviewed, and PESH had to issue subpoenas to get them to talk.

On the afternoon of March 3, 2021, Morse was in what’s known as “hell week”- week 3 of an 11-week training program. He was the last recruit of his battalion to conquer four firefighter survival training exercises, or “evolutions,” inside the fire academy’s gymnasium.

It was in the final exercise where Morse had his medical emergency- called the box. The training evolution includes a 21-foot-long, two-and-a-half-foot-wide wooden tunnel, with a hinged top. The report says the top was open so instructors could watch. Morse had on his air pack and a blacked-out breathing mask, to simulate real fire conditions.

Before getting into the box, investigators learned that Morse may not have been feeling well.

Several recruits told investigators “Mr. Morse was struggling through drills earlier in the day. Recruits state that, during the earlier training portions of the day, Mr. Morse appeared to be exhausted and emotional.”

The fire instructors all told investigators they had not noticed Morse wasn’t feeling well, and other recruits didn’t share what Morse told them.

Inside the box obstacle, the report indicates Morse struggled, as fire investigators gave verbal guidance through the open top. At one point, Morse’s low-air alarm went off, meaning there was less than 35% air remaining in his cylinder. Instructors told Morse to continue, according to the report.

When he was nearly done, Morse’s personal alert safety system went off, due to his lack of movement. Instructors say they saw Morse squirm, an attempt to reset the alarm on his own. It didn’t work. Instead, an instructor reached in and reset the alarm.

Three fire recruits told investigators they heard Morse say, “I can’t breathe,” while he was going through the obstacle. But the four fire investigators interviewed told investigators a different story. Two of them- Terry Ward and Bruce Heberer- said they heard Morse say, “I’m stuck.” Two others- Scott DeNinno and Chris Rea, say Morse said nothing during the exercise.

The report says Morse couldn’t continue on, and instructors helped by physically pulling and guiding him out of the box. In the end, the report states, Morse, on his own, got halfway out of the box and then became motionless.

The report notes Morse’s air pack was still 20 percent full and a later inspection of his equipment showed no signs of a malfunction.

Back in the gymnasium, Morse was unconscious, blue in the face, with no pulse. An on-site EMS, Mary Miller, performed CPR. With an ambulance 15 minutes away, Miller decided to put Morse in a state bus and go to the hospital.

Some other points from the report: no one took the vital signs of the trainees before or during their training that day. The investigators found that violated Fire Academy policy.

Investigators also learned the academy relied on recruits to self-report how they felt during training. Recruits were told, while in a group, to raise their hands if they didn’t feel well. Some recruits told investigators that was an intimidating environment.

To be clear, the report doesn’t blame the instructors for Peyton Morse’s death. 7 News reached out to PESH for comment Thursday and officials referred us to a statement they made back in November when officials called the investigation thorough.

Watertown Fire Chief Matt Timerman says he remains frustrated with the report and expects to sit down with PESH in early January for an informal conference.

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