Foil: Your right to Know.
“The guys at Spring Valley’s Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1 have been through a long 2 1/2 years. And now a long week.
Two-and-a-half years since they’d buried one of their own, Jared Lloyd, their sports-loving, Mets-fan, firefighter brother, whose “Mayday” call at the Evergreen Court fire in March 2021 was just in time to save his best friend, Eric Cich, but too late to save 35-year-old Jared. He left behind two young sons and a grieving Rockland fire community. Those 2 1/2 years led, eventually and inevitably it seems, to this long week. A week of answering too many calls and texts from incredulous friends and fellow firefighters.
No jail time? Probation? Just $600 in court fees?
The guys learned late last week that the men whose actions had led to the fire — rabbis Nathaniel Sommer and his son, Aaron — had struck a plea bargain with Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh.
The elder Sommer, 71, pleaded to two felony counts of second-degree manslaughter. His son, 28, pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless endangerment. They are to pay $600 in court fees, according to the agreement approved by County Court Judge Kevin Russo. They will be sentenced Sept. 20 but will not serve time in jail.
The Sommers had used a massive blowtorch to purify the ovens of the Evergreen Court Home for Adults for Passover, sparking the fire that quickly consumed the creaking facility with 112 sleeping residents inside. One of the residents, Oliver Hueston, had died. So, too, did Jared Lloyd, whose name now adorns the Columbian firehouse on West Street.
The fact that only two lives were lost, given the facts on the ground when the Columbian engine pulled up to Evergreen Court, was a testament to the speed and skill of the firefighters.
Resign and keep away:Angry firefighters pull red carpet from plea-dealing Rockland DA
Plea deal ‘like a punch to the gut’
Soon, the guys repair to the upstairs meeting room and semi-circle up some chairs to talk Jared, the years and one long week. They are: Spring Valley Fire Chief Kenny Conjura; Kapral; former Spring Valley Fire Chief Mike Johnson; Fire Capt. Shareef Conjura (the chief’s nephew); and George Cich, a fire veteran whose son, Eric, was pulled from the building 20 seconds before it collapsed. Eric is now a career firefighter in South Carolina.
Kapral talks about being in the courtroom on June 20, when Russo approved the plea that Walsh had ironed out.
“I was livid,” he said. “I walked out of that courtroom and I go ‘$600 in court fees and probation.’ To listen to them admit that they caused the fire that killed people and then nothing happened to them other than probation. It was maddening. It was like a punch to the gut.”
‘He sold his soul out for the bloc vote’
Johnson minced no words on Walsh and the way the case against the Sommers was prosecuted.
After the first weeks of the investigation, when New York State Police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and state fire inspectors were involved, Walsh closed ranks. Walsh used his own staff, Johnson said, and refused repeated offers of investigative help from any other quarter.
With Rockland’s powerful Orthodox community wielding considerable political power, Johnson suggested, a full-throated prosecution and trial was not in the cards.
“The evidence is there,” he said. “The perpetrators admitted in court to what they did and still no jail time. How is that possible? He cannot be that inept of an attorney to not be able to get justice. I think he got exactly what he wanted. And I think that somebody should contact the attorney general and she should start an investigation into how he ran this case. He sold his soul out for the bloc vote. That’s what he did. He knew that from from Day One, in my opinion.“ Walsh has offered no public explanation for the plea deal. His meeting with the families, six days before the plea bargain was approved by Russo, was triggering for Columbian members who have been forced to relive the fire, “like ripping off a Band-Aid,” Chief Conjura said.
No consequences, ‘even for murder’
In the days that followed the Evergreen Court fire, firefighter after firefighter recalled prior visits to the former hotel, which had been added to over the years. They came away with a common thought, one they often said to one another.
If we ever come back here for a fire, someone is going to die.
Kapral and Johnson, the former Spring Valley chief, said as much sitting in that semicircle after this long week.
Johnson blamed the legal system in Ramapo and Spring Valley, which he said has rendered building codes toothless.
“Over the years, 30, 40 years, as fines and violations are issued and they are thrown out of court for whatever reason, and there is no consequence for anything that they have going on that’s violating building codes,” Johnson said. “They know that they’re gonna get away with it. So they can continue to do it and continue to do it and continue to do it.
“That’s why the buildings in Spring Valley look the way they do today,” he said. “That’s why the firefighters here put their lives on the line every day, because the buildings are unsafe.” “We thought that if something ever happened that would change that, that the county would do things, that the state would do things to prevent something from happening again,” Johnson said with a mix of anger and resignation. “But we’re at the point where there were no consequences even for murder. So how is anything gonna ever change?”
Read the complete Journal News story here.