Firefighter accused of beating co-worker says he was attacked first

In the latest twist in the ongoing saga of an on-duty fire station brawl that was the subject of an alleged cover-up last spring, a veteran firefighter accused of attacking a first-year colleague says he was attacked first. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said that regardless of whether that were true, she would still recommend firing the veteran.

Firefighter Bela Carreira claims that probationary firefighter Joel Soto followed him down to the basement gym in station 32 in Bernal Heights on May 21 and attacked him by pushing him and yelling at him after the two had a disagreement in the station house. “He literally assaulted and battered me by trying to push and grab me while he screamed in anger,” Carreira wrote in a statement dated May 21.

Carreira, a five-year veteran, reported that, in self-defense, he punched Soto two or three times. Soto suffered a fat lip, broken cheek, cut lip and a bump on the back of his head.

The fight led to a cover-up attempt, fire officials said, wherein the six department members staffing the station agreed to report that Soto had fallen down the basement stairs. But when news of the altercation and subsequent cover-up reached department brass June 15, Hayes-White ordered an investigation.

Three firefighters and paramedics received eight- and 10-day suspensions for false testimony for their part in the cover-up. Hayes-White recommended a 90-day suspension for the acting lieutenant in charge of the station, who has retired. Carreira faces termination on charges of violence, acts detrimental to the welfare of the department and providing false reports or false testimony.

To date, Soto, who remains off work, has received no disciplinary action for the incident, even though he did not report the incident when it happened. Hayes-White said in an interview Tuesday that, while no disciplinary action had been started against Soto, the door is still open for that. “We certainly haven’t closed the case,” she said.

At a Fire Commission disciplinary hearing for Carreira on Tuesday, Hayes-White said she believed that failing to report an incident while knowing others are misreporting that incident counts as false testimony.

Meanwhile, Carreira, who is on suspension, is fighting for his job as the Fire Commission hears evidence in the case. On Monday, Soto testified that Carreira had attacked him. According to his lawyer, William McDevitt, Soto claims that, after an earlier verbal argument, Soto tried to make peace with Carreira, but Carreira rebuffed him, saying “You want a f—— piece of me?” Soto claims Carreira then hit him in the back of the head as he was walking away, and “knocked to the ground and then pummeled [him].” Soto is suing Carreira for assault and battery for the attack.

Regardless of which version of the story is true, Hayes-White said, Soto’s injuries indicate a response that “far outweighed” his alleged attack.

“My feeling is that these violations still apply and the conduct or actions of firefighter Carreira, even if he was pushed, were out of proportion,” she said.

amartin@examiner.com

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