Before anyone can become a firefighter, they first must take an oath: a promise to put the lives of others before their own, even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice.
So when Capt. Daniel Dwyer of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department stepped into a burning Northwest Atlanta home on June 28, 2019, to rescue the 95-year-old woman trapped inside, it seemed as though he was simply doing his job.
That is until he got suspended for 48 hours — without pay — for trying to save someone’s life. And despite his best efforts, Sallie Skrine, the woman Dwyer was rescuing, died after succumbing to her injuries.
After a nearly seven-month internal investigation, it found that Dwyer “entered the structure” without “crew members,” according to a notice of “final adverse action” complaint from the Atlanta-Fire Rescue obtained by CNN.
The complaint says that Dwyer will officially be suspended without pay starting Friday. However, since firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts, Dwyer’s suspension is effective for Feb. 13 and Feb. 16, according to the complaint.
“While performing your duties, you entered the structure without your crew members which is in immediate conflict with no freelancing, accountability, and maintaining crew integrity,” Fire Chief Randall Slaughter wrote in the complaint against Dwyer.
On the same day, Dwyer filed an appeal with the City of Atlanta Department of Human Resources against the chief’s decision to suspend him.
Rules, no exceptions
When firefighters were first alerted of the blaze that had engulfed Skrine’s home on that summer night, they were told that a 95-year-old woman, the homeowner, was trapped inside her home, according to Atlanta Firefighters Union President Paul Gerdis.
Gerdis heads the Atlanta Local 134 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union representing firefighters such as Dwyer and defending their rights to fair wages, benefits and working conditions.
By the time Dwyer’s crew arrived at the scene, he was dressed and prepared to initiate a primary search. He was able to locate an unconscious Skrine and remove her from the fire before the rest of his team had finished dressing into their firefighter gear and tools, Gerdis said.
“Time is of the essence. Captain Dwyer did exactly what firefighters are sworn oath to do. We are absolutely against the decision to suspend him,” Gerdis said. “Not only does he have to live with the guilt of not being able to save the homeowner, but now he and his family have to deal with the financial repercussions of not getting paid for 48 hours just for trying to save someone’s life.”
Remembering the victim of the tragedy
Skrine, the woman Dwyer tried to save, would have been just as defensive of Dwyer, according to her friends. Skrine was a prominent member of her community, running the food pantry at the Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in Atlanta for nearly four decades, her close friend Lindsey Jordan Sr. said.
“I’ve known her for 50 years. I miss her so much, her kind, kind heart, her generosity, I miss her food. Her rutabaga, she would always bring me some when she made it. No one could make rutabaga like Sallie. I just miss her,” Jordan, who is a church administrator at Jackson Memorial, said.
But it wasn’t just Skrine’s rutabaga that her friends missed. The avid church volunteer was especially known for her boundless generosity, especially for the hungry.
Anytime she heard of anyone needing food, “within 20 minutes,” Jordan said, Skrine would be there with four boxes of food — no one was ever allowed to go hungry.
“If Sallie was alive, and she knew the firefighter who tried to save her was suspended, oh man she would be wound up,” Jordan said. “They would’ve gotten a piece of her mind. She would’ve come knocking on my door and taken me with her to the fire department complaining.”
Neither Dwyer nor Slaughter were able to comment since the appeal was filed and the investigation reopened. Firefighters, too, are unable to comment on open investigations.
“I understand that the fire chief and the fire department wants its members to be safe. But we cannot, as a fire service, decide that we are unable to perform our sworn duty, which is to protect our citizens.” Gerdis said,
“If the fire chief won’t rescind the punishment given to Capt. Dwyer, we hope Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms will step in and make the right decision.”