ATF's help on fire is rejected at last minute 'Overzealous' investigator sought assistance without approval, city officials say

September 21, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Federal agents, invited by a city investigator to help probe the fatal Clipper Industrial Park fire, were abruptly sent packing Monday by the Fire Department, which claimed their help was not needed.

The move has angered the Baltimore division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which assembled a team of 30 investigators who flew in from at least four states -- only to be turned away 10 minutes before its first meeting.

A high-level ATF agent, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said the miscue cost taxpayers $20,000 in airfare, hotel rooms and other expenses. Agents came to Baltimore from Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, New York and Buffalo, N.Y.

But city fire officials blamed an "overzealous" investigator for inviting ATF agents to help determine the cause of Saturday's eight-alarm fire, which destroyed a 19th-century iron foundry and left one firefighter dead.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said an investigator "somehow miscommunicated that resources were needed. That should not have taken place."

Fire chief not informed

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke identified the investigator as Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, who is leading the probe into the fire. The mayor said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. didn't know the ATF had been invited until agents started arriving.

"I'm clearly pleased any time the ATF makes an offer to our local law enforcement agencies," Mr. Schmoke said. "The ATF could have saved an awful lot of money by following their standard procedure by talking to the head of the agency."

The ATF source said the team included agents who had investigated the bombings of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City federal building, and last week's car bombing in Essex.

"It doesn't cost the city anything," the source said. "It saves the city money. They can recognize things that other investigators might miss. We offered our assistance because there was a dead fireman."

Captain Fugate said he met an ATF agent at the fire scene Sunday afternoon and decided with members of the police arson squad that federal assistance could be helpful.

"I'm looking at a huge building," the captain said. "I've never investigated a fire of this magnitude."

'Penchant for grandstanding'

The captain said he insisted to the ATF agent that the city would remain in control of the investigation, including all news media contacts. "They have a penchant for grandstanding," he said.

Several meetings were set up for Monday, and the ATF called in its Northeast region response team, which began arriving Monday morning and went directly to the fire scene.

Captain Fugate said that while Chief Williams and other officials did not want ATF assistance, they had agreed to meet with the agents at 1 p.m. But that meeting was canceled and the ATF was told it was not needed after the chief saw agents on a local television news show, Captain Fugate said.

Mr. Schmoke said that Chief Williams might allow the ATF to work with fire investigators on a consultant basis.

Funeral scheduled for today

Meanwhile, fire officials said they still have not learned a cause for the blaze that killed firefighter Eric D. Schaefer, 25, and injured 17 others -- three of whom remained hospitalized yesterday.

A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in the 3600 block of Harford Road. The mayor is scheduled to speak at the service, at which hundreds of firefighters are expected to attend.

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