Feds settle with town, firefighters for $3.8M after chopper landing fiasco

Jessica Scarpati

Five years after four Brookline firefighters were injured aiding a helicopter test landing for the president, they are taking $3 million to the bank from Uncle Sam instead of going to trial.

Since the firefighters and the town filed suit against the United States government, two of the four firefighters have retired while the other two have returned to work after  extended sick leaves.

Local officials said the federal government wired the town an additional $800,000 on Aug. 30 as part of the settlement, signed July 30, to cover payroll, medical fees and related overtime costs related to the 2002 incident.

“I think if we proceeded to trial, it would have been an embarrassment for the United States government,” said Associate Town Counsel Joslin Murphy, who represented the town in the case.

The resolution stems from a test landing on Parsons Field in 2002, when President George W. Bush was planning to visit Boston Latin School to speak about education policy.

According to court documents, Bush was scheduled to fly in on Jan. 8, but federal officials staged a test rehearsal landing Jan. 5 on the Northeastern University football field on Kent Street, despite warnings from local officials.

“It’s a football and baseball field, but it’s surrounded by residences, so it’s really a postage stamp in this very built-up area,” Murphy said. “Brookline officials were concerned about it because they felt it was not a very appropriate place to land.”

During the test landing, a flying team used two Chinook helicopters — twin-engine military copters with two large horizontal rotors on both ends of the roof — instead of the traditional single rotor in the center.

“The downwash [force of air downward] was so significant, it lifted one of the baseball dugout structures off its foundation, and that’s what injured the firefighters [who had taken shelter behind it],” Murphy said.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus who specialized in helicopter design testified that the use of the military choppers on the field was “an unreasonable exercise,” she added.

Since receiving the $800,000 from the government to drop the suit, Murphy said the town has recouped all of the four firefighters’ pay and medical bills surrounding the incident.

The money also partially reimbursed the town for overtime hours paid to other firefighters to make up for the injured ones’ absences, she said.

Murphy partially credited the recovery of damages for the town and firefighters to the expert, a Brookline resident who offered his services pro bono to the town.

“I think [he] was extraordinarily helpful, but also in the depositions of a number of government witnesses, I think we were able to prove the government paid very little attention to the safety of the firefighters,” she said.

Representatives from the federal Department of Justice did not return a call seeking comment.

Murphy said the four firefighters in the suit — Frederick Babcock, Joseph Canney, Thomas Gregorio and John Kelley — would divide the $3 million in damages among themselves.

Babcock and Kelley were granted disability retirement in March 2005 and May 2006, respectively.

Rhonda Maloney, a Boston lawyer representing the firefighters, said her clients were “very happy” with the outcome, especially since the United States had filed a motion to dismiss early on.

“We really faced a risk on that, although we think we would’ve won on the motion,” Maloney said.

Although Maloney declined to comment on the exact distribution of the $3 million among the four firefighters, she said the process was painless.

“They did it in an incredibly well-reasoned and selfless way,” she said. “I’ve never seen four plaintiffs be able to come to an agreement so quickly.”

Jessica Scarpati can be reached at jscarpat@cnc.com.