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Investigators are zeroing in on catastrophic brake failure as the cause of Friday's fatal firetruck crash based on reports from survivors who said the driver was conscious and frantically pumping the brakes to no avail as the massive ladder truck hurtled down a steep hill, through an intersection, and into a high-rise apartment building.

"We're not stopping! We're not stopping!" the driver yelled, according to the official.

Fire Lieutenant Kevin M. Kelley, in the front passenger seat, was killed instantly. The driver, firefighter Robert Bernard O'Neill, was kept overnight at Brigham & Women's Hospital, but was released yesterday. The two other firefighters, who gave preliminary reports to investigators, were riding in the back seat and suffered minor injuries.

Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser last night commissioned an outside inspection of the brake systems on the 44 firetrucks from the same manufacturer in the city fleet. He characterized it as a precautionary measure, saying officials have not found anything systemically suspect that could have contributed to brake failure. Fraser emphasized that brake failure is a preliminary theory, based on the lack of skid marks near the crash scene on Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill and the dry road conditions.

"People just make that logical assumption," he said. "I think that the common sense assumption is they had no braking ability or they wouldn't have barreled down a hill and into a wall."

Maintenance records show that the truck in Friday's accident has had brake problems in the past. In 2006, the 110-foot ladder truck crashed into another building, but no one was hurt in that incident. Last October, a routine inspection found a faulty brake hose, which was replaced by a North Attleborough repair shop.

The truck has been impounded by police and will undergo a stem-to-stern examination as part of the investigation.

Boston police and Suffolk County prosecutors are conducting the primary probe of the crash, seeking to rule out any criminal activity that could have contributed to the tragedy.

"Our investigation will be thorough, and the loss our city suffered Friday will remain foremost in our minds," Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement yesterday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Lieutenant Kelley's family, his loved ones, and his department."

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Comment by Kyle stenson on February 6, 2009 at 2:27pm
My thoughts and prayers are also go out to his family and to his departmant. we as fire fighters try our best to save lives and property. It's unfortunate that when we get on the truck and roll, things happen that we can't predict or explain. On the rigs some stuff malfunction brakes,hydraulics hoses, water pressure, ect: He did what e loved. I don't know him I can tell that when I get on the rig I will always remeber my fallen brothers,and sisters that lost ther lives on duty and off duty. God bless the fire fighters that dose the job with integrity, pride, courage. and doing what is right with out being told. God bless you all!

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