Whiteclay burn victim files papers to sue county

By Grant Schulte
Lincoln, Nebraska (AP) June 2012

A man who was burned in a controlled grass fire in the Nebraska border town of Whiteclay has filed papers to sue local authorities for negligence, saying they failed to spot him lying in a field and ignited the blaze on a dangerously windy day.

The man burned, Bryan Blue Bird Jr., lives just across the state line on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the incident comes amid already tense relations between members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Whiteclay business owners. That’s due to the vast amount of alcohol sold in four beer stores to residents of Pine Ridge, where alcohol is banned.

Blue Bird, who said he hadn’t been drinking when he was burned, has hired an Omaha lawyer and filed tort-claim papers that will allow him to proceed with a lawsuit against Sheridan County and the Rushville Fire Department.

Blue Bird said members of the volunteer department should have seen him when they set the blaze on March 6. He suffered burns on roughly 25 percent of his body, including his hands, face, left leg, lower back and abdomen.

“I’m a grown man, but I’ve cried a lot since this happened,” Blue Bird said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, on anyone’s worst enemy. It’s horrible.”

Phone messages left with the Sheridan County Sheriff’s office, which supervised the Rushville fire crew, were not returned. An assistant Sheridan County attorney said officials had turned the case over to their insurer, which would hire a lawyer to represent them.

Sheriff Terry Robbins has said firefighters searched the field before they started the fire.

Firefighters set the blaze to protect several abandoned homes and nearby businesses in the 11-person town – including the four beer stores that last year sold the equivalent of 4.3 million, 12-ounce cans of beer.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe has filed a federal lawsuit seeking $500 million from the stores, their distributors and the global beer makers, arguing they knowingly contributed to devastating alcohol-related problems on the reservation.

Blue Bird isn’t involved in that lawsuit and said he doesn’t blame the beer stores for his injuries, but activists who have tried to limit alcohol sales in Whiteclay said such a case was inevitable, given the number of people who loiter around the stores and sleep in nearby fields.

Duane Martin Sr., a leader of the Strong Heart Warrior Society on Pine Ridge, said he was outraged when he heard about the incident but not surprised. Martin said intoxicated tribe members often sleep in and around the abandoned houses, and he criticized the department for not checking the field more closely.

“Isn’t that what fire departments are trained to do?” Martin asked. “This is the type of problem I’ve been telling people about. It makes a lot of sense something like this would happen, because of the alcohol crisis in that place.”

Although firefighters set the fire in a field where intoxicated people have been known to pass out, Blue Bird said he hadn’t been drinking.

Blue Bird, a 51-year-old Army veteran who worked laying cinderblocks, branding cattle and fixing cars, said he went to Whiteclay to meet a friend and was walking through waist-high prairie grass in the unincorporated town when he dropped to one knee to tighten his bootlace, causing a muscle spasm that blasted pain through his lower back. He said he turned over and lay face-up in the grass, then sat up slowly to relieve the cramp.

The fire swept over him before he realized what was happening, he said. Blue Bird said he rolled over on his stomach, inhaled, and covered his face with his hands. Flames scorched his eyebrows and mustache and singed the ponytail that reached halfway down his back.

“I saw them, but they were moving so fast,” he said. “It was really windy that day. Even if I had seen them and gotten up to run, they still would have gotten me.”

Weather records indicate wind speeds around Whiteclay varied from 11 mph to 35 mph that day, with gusts that reached 44 mph.

Blue Bird now wears oven mitts to lift heavy objects, so his skin doesn’t peel. Burns scars cover his left ear, left leg, and abdomen. The two smallest fingers on his left hand fused together, and he now shies from direct sunlight.

Blue Bird said a friend pulled him out of the flames and beat the fire out with his hands, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Someone called an ambulance that drove him to Pine Ridge’s hospital, where medical staff sedated him. He awoke almost three days later at a burn center in Greeley, Colo., with a breathing tube in his throat.

Blue Bird’s attorney, Tom White of Omaha, filed a tort-claim notice with Sheridan County and the Rushville Fire Department in April. White said that the notice triggers a 6-month waiting period before Blue Bird can file the lawsuit, so local authorities have a chance to seek a settlement.

White, a former Democratic state lawmaker who is also representing the tribal government in its lawsuit against the Whiteclay beer stores, said firefighters did “a very poor job” of checking the area before they lit the fire.
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