Investigators sift rubble of fatal fire Governor visits firefighters injured in weekend blaze

September 20, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Investigators continued yesterday to sort through tons of rubble at the Clipper Industrial Park, trying to learn why a wall collapsed during a raging fire Saturday and killed a firefighter who was buried under a pile of brick and stone.

The investigation, which could take months to complete, will be conducted by a team of firefighters under the supervision of Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr.

As officials homed in on the cause of the deadly eight-alarm fire -- and where it began -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening privately visited three of the most seriously injured firefighters at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"You are role models for our children," he told them. "You may not hear the applause that Cal Ripken heard two weeks ago a few short blocks from here, but your bravery, community service, discipline and concern for others is applauded every single day."

The state's chief executive later met with Chief Williams and 16 firefighters in an engine bay at the downtown Steadman Station, where the firefighter who died, 25-year-old Eric D. Schaefer, worked.

Chief Williams said investigators believe the fire began in the middle of the 19th-century iron foundry that most recently housed artists' studios and small businesses, but an exact location has not yet been found.

A separate investigation also is under way to determine how the two-story granite wall collapsed on several firefighters as they cut through a metal door so they could pour water on the flames.

Seventeen firefighters were injured, three of whom remained hospitalized at Maryland Shock Trauma Center yesterday. Stuart Curtain, 43, and Capt. Joseph P. Luncznski, 44, were in fair condition.

Barry Blackmon, 43, was in serious condition.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman, refused to comment on the investigation, but said preliminary indications are that the collapse could not have been prevented.

"We want to make sure that everything that could have been done was, and if there is anything that we can learn, that we benefit from it," the spokesman said.

Rick Schluderberg, vice president of the 1,700-member firefighters union, agreed. Union members will be included in the department's investigation.

"Everybody wants to find why it happened," Mr. Schluderberg said. "And if there is something we can to do to prevent it in the future. It's a risk everybody accepts but nobody wants to experience."

Chief Williams said investigators may try to reconstruct the wall in hopes of learning how it fell down. He said normally, when a roof caves in, the side walls collapse. "In this instance, not only did the side walls fall, the front walls fell," he said.

The trapped firefighters were lined up against the front wall. One was using a chain saw to open a metal door while the others waited to spray water on the flames.

Chief Williams said he has "no second thoughts" about how the fire was fought.

He said the plan was to fight the fire from above, but firefighters needed to ventilate the building and spray water from ground level to avoid pushing the fire out to the sides.

While the virtual inferno sparked fires on houses and buildings in the Woodberry neighborhood as soot and burning embers sailed several blocks, the chief commended his troops for containing the blaze as they fought to pack fire trucks onto narrow streets.

"Under these circumstances it is very difficult, and someone is always looking for fault or what the problem is," Chief Williams said. "We have just got to recognize sometimes that it is a dangerous job where you pay the ultimate sacrifice."

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