FDNY firefighter William Tolley of Bethpage, who died in April 2017...

FDNY firefighter William Tolley of Bethpage, who died in April 2017 when he fell from a ladder-basket. Credit: Theodore Parisienne

An FDNY firefighter from Long Island wasn't harnessed to a firetruck basket when he fell five stories to his death, apparently taking off his safety gear so he could troubleshoot a problem with the basket, an internal investigation concluded. 

William Tolley, 42, of Bethpage, plummeted to the ground fighting a Ridgewood, Queens, apartment fire on April 20, 2017. Burning incense left unattended in a second-floor apartment had started the blaze, the FDNY said at the time. 

Moments before falling, Tolley had directed a firefighter on the ground to raise the basket because Tolley thought he was having trouble with the steering mechanism on the basket, according to the undated findings by the FDNY's Safety Investigation Team. The department released the findings this month under New York's open-records law. 

Tolley, 42, "may have removed his safety belt to look over the Tower Ladder basket's edge to see what the problem may have been," the investigators said. FDNY rules call for a firefighter to wear a safety harness inside a ladder basket.

At roughly the same time Tolley was checking the basket, the firefighter on the ground raised the basket, the findings show. The basket jolted, throwing Tolley to the sidewalk. He died at a hospital. 

Both Tolley and the other firefighter, who was not named in the report, had followed the department's standard operating procedures, investigators found.

In their investigation, safety team members found that the basket wouldn't move because a bracket was hooked on a piece of the roof. They, however, couldn't determine what caused the basket to lurch. 

"Tolley’s movements in and around the Tower Ladder basket may have impacted the … basket’s position, i.e. a simple shift in weight,” the investigators said.

A witness told the fire marshal that the ladder “abruptly shifted and violently jerked to the right and that the firefighter lost his balance,” the investigators said. 

Safety team members also found the door of the basket had unlatched, though they didn't explain how the door opened. 

“This is certainly a one-of-a-kind incident … It took such a combination of freak coincidences to create that tragic death,” said William Kramer, a longtime fire chief in Indianapolis and Cincinnati who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati and reviewed the findings at Newsday’s request.

Because of the accident, the FDNY developed additional  protocols for ladder-basket safety and incorporated two more hours of ladder-basket safety training to the ladder company driver certification process, department spokesman Myles Miller said in a statement. 

The Uniformed Firefighters Association labor union declined to comment.

Tolley had 14 years with the FDNY and was assigned to Ladder Company 135. He was also a volunteer for the Bethpage and Hicksville fire departments.

Tolley is survived by his wife, Marie, and their daughter, Isabella.

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