ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rochester City Council President Miguel Melendez and Councilmember Willie Lightfoot are calling for more information about the fire department’s actions while fighting a fatal fire on Grape Street in 2012.
That fire claimed the lives of four children.
Melendez and Lightfoot’s inquiry comes after News 8 submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the city and received a video that was recorded during the fire, along with a number of reports from the police and fire departments.
“I am very concerned by what I saw in this video,” Melendez wrote in a separate letter to Mayor Malik Evans. “I wholly understand that this video is approximately 11 years old and from three administrations ago, however, I do want to understand how this incident was reviewed internally and if this investigation led to any findings or outcomes.”
The fire occurred almost a decade before Mayor Evans took office in 2022.
News 8 asked for the video after an anonymous tip.
In a joint statement to News 8, Lightfoot, who fought fires in Rochester for two decades, and Melendez said the video, which shows the children looking down from the second floor begging for rescue, should prompt a “conversation on what was done, and possibly not done, during that fateful event.”
Gage Reavy, 14, Greg Kugler, 13, Kandee Kugler, 12, and Kaiden Kugler, 6, died that night. Their mother, Bobbie Kugler, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, assault and arson and admitted to lighting a photo on fire to light incense before going to sleep. She called the fire an accident saying she was drunk and on sleeping and anxiety medications at the time.
Bobbie Kugler spent 5 years in prison and was released in 2018. Her parole supervision is scheduled to end this Friday.
News 8 has posted an edited version of the video with this story. Viewer discretion is advised.
‘WE’VE GOT PEOPLE TRAPPED ON THE SECOND FLOOR’
Firefighters had been on scene when that fatal fire broke out because they had responded to a separate fire just outside 82 Grape Street, a few blocks from Innovative Field.
That first call came in at around 12:30 am on Feb. 18, 2012.
That response included Engine 13, which carries up to 500 gallons of water and in this case plays a central role in what would happen in less than an hour.
Police would later learn a neighbor, upset with her boyfriend, tossed his clothes on the frozen sidewalk and set fire to the pile.
When first responders arrived, she was gone.
There was no answer when police knocked on the door at 82 Grape Street, though there were people inside, including Kugler and the children.
At first glance, 80 and 82 Grape Street might look like one home, but there are separate entrances on each side and the two apartments share a common wall up the middle.
The fire Kugler started inside the house grew, eventually catching the eyes of the firefighters outside.
A Rochester firefighter hit record on his camera, focusing at first on the flames in a first-floor window.
The video then shows a firefighter forcing open the door and walking away, allowing the winter air to rush in.
About 30 seconds later came the call that changed everything.
“There’s somebody upstairs!” someone shouted.
The firefighter with the camera then adds, “We’ve got people trapped. We’ve got people trapped on the second floor.”
He then panned up to the second-floor windows, where children can be seen calling for help.
‘GET EVERYBODY OUT OF THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY’
At the same time two firefighters headed towards the open door carrying a fire hose.
After a minute and a half the firefighter taking video yelled over the engine operator, telling him to “charge the line.”
Those two firefighters were not getting the water needed to stop the aggressive fire from spreading, according to reports reviewed by News 8.
Both of those firefighters would later tell police about the problem. “There was an issue with the water pressure,” one said. The other added that he “was waiting for water to fight the fire … (and) did get water after a short period of time … he was able to knock the flames down. A problem with the hose occurred affecting the water pressure and the flames quickly shot up again.”
Kugler, who had been rescued along with her toddler, was now outside screaming “Where’s my kids?!”
With flames appearing in the window below where the kids had appeared, firefighters moved a ladder to the next set of windows and stepped foot on it two minutes after they had learned people were trapped.
The videographer, who kept recording, then once again addressed the man tasked with making sure the hose was attached to Engine 13 and working properly, and yells, “Give ’em the water, Tommy, give ’em the water!”
That command occurred more than three minutes after the front door was punched open.
As flames clawed at the roof, the firefighters from Truck 10 who made it through the second-floor window realized they had entered a different apartment.
They radioed down saying, “We went the wrong way.”
Two minutes after that the videographer again told the man at the engine to charge the line, meaning the fire had been left to run unabated for more than five minutes.
Eventually, with the fire now consuming the house, the crew on the second floor of the wrong apartment requested permission to break through the wall.
In reply they heard: “Get everybody out of the building immediately. Evacuate immediately.”
Kugler, her toddler and several others had escaped, but investigators later found the children’s bodies on the second floor of the first apartment.
The following video has been edited to redact the most graphic images and sound. Some may find it disturbing.
In an interview later that day the fire chief at the time, John Caufield, told News 8, “Conditions deteriorated incredibly quickly … to the point that actually the first hose line burned through. So firefighters had no water, they were deep inside the building trying to extinguish a rapidly expanding fire. Firefighters made an incredibly valiant effort to get up to and into the second-floor window by a ladder.”
But News 8 could not find an RFD report where Caufield mentions firefighters entered the wrong side of the duplex, nor was that included in the RFD incident report the city released to News 8.
That report also did not mention the lack of water or Caufield’s explanation.
That said, photos of a burned hose were submitted into evidence that can be found in Bobbie Kugler’s case file.
Additionally, News 8 could not find any kind of review from RFD that details how or why the hose got burned or how or why the videographer thought throughout the fire it was, instead, a problem at the truck.
Looking for such a review, News 8 submitted a FOIA request to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which had crew look over the case.
The only ATF report News 8 received contained a two-paragraph summary of the fire that provided little insight into RFD’s response.
Bob O’Brien, a retired New York City firefighter and co-owner of NY Fire Consultants, watched the video and reviewed the associated paperwork.
“It’s a tragedy, there were probably things that could have been done differently,” O’Brien said. “What those are, it’s 11 years later and we would need much more information and we’d really need to speak to people who were there.
“Hopefully the people who were there have passed along their knowledge to young firefighters,” he added. “Are mistakes made? Yes. It’s important to learn from them. Let no man’s ghost come to say their training let them down.”
The fire department directed all questions to City Hall.
The Office of Malik Evans, which had granted News 8’s FOIA request without pushback, did not comment Wednesday on the inquiry from Melendez and Lightfoot, but Evans’ communications director, Barbara Pierce, did provided this statement:
“The Grape Street fire was a horrific tragedy in which four children died. That incident still lives in the hearts and minds of the first responders who worked to save those lives, and is a moment that changed a family forever. Although it occurred under a different administration with a different Mayor and different Fire Chief, in the interest of transparency, the Evans Administration has provided any information regarding the fire to media outlets that have requested it.”
The union that represents Rochester firefighters, IAFF 1071, also released a statement Wednesday that read, “On February 18, 2012, the Rochester Fire Department responded to a fire at 80 Grape Street where four lives were lost. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and our IAFF Local 1071 Brothers and Sisters who have to relive this horrific tragedy.”
News 8 left a message with Caufield, but did not get a call back.
Now requesting a briefing to City Council from Chief Stefano Napolitano and his command staff, Melendez and Lightfoot are asking to be informed about the fire, RFD’s response to it and “their policies, procedures and protocols during incidents like that one – including what was done in relation to the fatal Grape Street Fire and how that may differ with how things are handled today.”
Their statement went on to say, “Often the surest way to ensure a tragedy like this does not repeat itself is through full, frank and transparent conversation.”
On Thursday, a week after requesting a briefing from City Hall on the fire, Melendez and Lightfoot addressed the issue at a public safety committee meeting.
They informed the committee their request came after News 8 approached them with the video and police and fire reports adding after reviewing everything, they felt compelled to seek answers.
“There’s no ax to grind here, this is sad, man. This is horrible, it’s horrific and I hope if anything we can learn from it,” Lightfoot said at the meeting.