Tenant caused Clipper fire, officials say Investigators uncertain whether blaze was intentional

Questioned man vanishes

Roof repair by occupant had been probed

October 03, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The eight-alarm fire that destroyed Clipper Industrial Park and killed a Baltimore firefighter last month was caused by a tenant who has since disappeared, according to sources close to the investigation.

The sources say it is not clear whether the fire was set intentionally. But investigators have ruled the cause incendiary, meaning the fire was ignited by someone, whether the individual intended to burn the building or not.

If officials can determine motive, they can change their ruling to arson -- which could lead to criminal charges in connection with the fire, which leveled a 19th-century iron foundry most recently used for artist studios.

Sources said a grand jury may be convened to make that determination.

The "incendiary" ruling means that police arson investigators will become more involved in interviewing witnesses to help determine a motive.

The Fire Department has scheduled a news conference for this morning to announce its findings. Department officials refused to comment yesterday.

Sources close to the investigation said a tenant trying to repair a leaky roof during a rainy night has disappeared after at least two interviews with fire officials.

Investigators said they are not sure how the fire began, but they believe the fire started in an attic near the center of the building.

One scenario, an investigator said, is that the fire started from a tool -- possibly a blow torch used to melt tar on the roof to seal a leak.

Early in their probe, officials said they believed that the fire started accidentally, but the actions of the man they believe caused the blaze caused investigators to change their minds.

"He has made himself a suspect," one official said.

Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer, 25, died while fighting the Sept. 16 fire in the 3600 block of Clipper Mill Road when a two-story granite wall collapsed, injuring 17 other firefighters -- three seriously.

A separate team of investigators, led by Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., is trying to find out why the wall collapsed minutes after the roof of the block-long building in the Woodberry neighborhood caved in about 10 p.m.

The owner of Clipper Industrial Park, William D. Poloway, could not be reached for comment last night. Last week, he vowed to rebuild for his tenants, many of whom include 20 artists who were displaced by the fire.

The owner of the Clipper City Rock Gym, an artificial rock climbing facility and a major tenant at the site, said yesterday that he did not know what caused the blaze.

"Anything that I hear I'm discounting," Jim Ellis said yesterday. "I really haven't heard anything. We're just kind of innocent victims."

Today's news conference at Fire Department headquarters is expected to end two weeks of speculation about the cause of one of the city's worst fires. But it also could raise more serious questions, such as motive.

Sources said the tenant initiated contact with fire investigators as they sifted through the rubble at the fire scene and directed them away from the middle of the structure, where they now believe the fire began.

Other interviews with the tenant only served to be contradictory, investigators said.

"He has been nothing but dishonest in everything that he has said," one source said, adding that his statements did not match interviews with his business partner.

That partner, sources said, has been questioned several times by police and has taken a voice stress analyzer test, a new device that measures stress in a person's voice to help determine whether someone is telling the truth.

Sources said the last time the tenant was interviewed was Sept. 26. Police detectives tried to reach the man later, but could not find him.

The sources said police staked out the man's house and left notices that they want to talk to him.

Investigators said fire officials have not decided whether to issue an arrest warrant for the man, but may instead wait to see how a grand jury rules.

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