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Expert witness testimony focuses on police in Hirko raid
Bethlehem police should have taken more fire-safety precautions before they attempted to raid John Hirko Jr.'s home because they knew they were going to use a potentially flammable distraction device, a private fire investigator testified Monday.
Before the raid, for example, firefighters should have been called to Hirko's home with hoses extended, fire investigator John Quinn told a federal jury in Allentown.
''The longer it burns, the worse the fire's going to get,'' Quinn testified.
Instead, firefighters were alerted to be ready but to stay at their firehouse.
Quinn, a former Philadelphia firefighter and assistant fire marshal, testified for lawyer John Karoly Jr. as the first expert witness in the 18-day-old trial. Karoly represents Hirko's family, his fiancee and his landlord in the civil rights and wrongful death trial.
Police shot Hirko 11 times during the attempted raid in April 1997 and accidentally set fire to his rented house. The suspected drug dealer's body was found in the house as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze.
As the fire burned, Hirko's fiancee, Kristin Fodi, escaped through a second-floor window.
Police officers have testified that they took special security precautions before trying to enter the house because they suspected Hirko was armed and dangerous.
They threw a flash-bang device into the living room in an attempt to distract him so they could make a safe entry, according to testimony. But the device started a fast-moving fire.
Flash-bang devices burn at 4,890 degrees, twice the temperature of burning gasoline, Quinn testified. ''A fire is not only possible, but likely,'' he said.
The manufacturer of the device, Defense Technology Corp. of America, trained the officer who threw the device to take fire precautions, according to an affidavit from the instructor. But officer Joseph Riedy failed to heed some of those precautions, according to testimony.
A fire extinguisher should be readily available, and the device should not be thrown near people or furniture, according to the instructor, who is expected to testify.
The device landed on a sofa, according to Quinn's investigation.
Because no fire extinguisher was readily available, an officer had to run to his police cruiser to get an extinguisher, the officer testified. That officer was delayed in going to the car because Riedy asked him to wait until he had reloaded his submachine gun, according to testimony.
By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was on the first and second floors. Firefighters could see smoke even before they arrived, according to their testimony.
When they arrived, police advised them to keep their distance because a ''shooter'' might be inside. For several minutes, firefighters fought the fire from behind a car across the street. That reduced their effectiveness, making it difficult to aim water through windows and doors onto the fire, Quinn said.
When firefighters did enter the house, they extinguished the fire in minutes, according to their testimony.
Firefighters could have confined the fire to the sofa if firefighters had been at the house before the raid or if police had the proper fire extinguisher, Quinn said.
Quinn also testified that officers could have dragged Hirko out of the house before the fire spread. Police, however, have testified that they considered Hirko a continuing threat even as the fire spread.