Clipper fire probe shifts from cause to question of who started it, why Tight-lipped authorities offer few details on search for a motive

October 04, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The investigation into last month's Clipper Industrial Park fire that killed a Baltimore firefighter has shifted from what caused the eight-alarm blaze to who started it and why, department officials said yesterday.

A Fire Department spokesman confirmed reports in yesterday's Sun that the fire, labeled incendiary, was "actually done by human hands." He said a ruling of arson -- which could lead to murder charges against the person responsible -- would have to wait until detectives establish a motive for the blaze.

But Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said it is "tough for me to come up with a scenario for this that would not be arson." The Sept. 16 fire destroyed a 19th-century iron foundry most recently used for artist studios.

Chief Torres refused to comment on a litany of questions posed at the news conference or on a Sun report yesterday that said investigators believe a tenant set the fire in an attic and has since disappeared.

"We are conscious of the need of the community to understand what happened on the night of Sept. 16," Chief Torres said. "But most important is that the investigation proceed accurately and to its proper conclusion."

The chief said investigators have all but "ruled out the possibility of an accidental fire."

"We have to find a motive," said Capt. John Griffith, of the fire investigation bureau. "It's going to take a long, involved investigation."

Officials also would not comment on a separate investigation being conducted to find out why a two-story granite wall collapsed, killing Firefighter Eric Schaefer and injuring 17 others.

During his news conference, Chief Torres lashed out at one television station that has aired reports questioning why firefighters were inside the burning building and then standing along a wall when the structure crumbled.

Later, the spokesman said investigators want to view unedited footage of the wall collapse shot by a photographer for WBAL-TV, but he complained that the television station has refused the request.

Chief Torres said the tape, which shows a cloud of dust billowing out a window moments before the wall fell over, has been "edited to sensationalize the entire event. It is not an accurate account of what happened in the fire." The chief said other stations have turned over their tapes and the department may take legal action against Channel 11. "We simply don't understand their unwillingness to assist us in their investigation," he said.

David Roberts, news director for WBAL-TV, said he is confident that his station would prevail in court. "We don't have to turn over our raw footage for whatever reason the Fire Department claims they want us to turn it over," he said.

The news director also called the news reports and the video of the fire "factually sound We are not in the business of servicing the public relations of the various public safety agencies in this city."

News that the Fire Department had established a cause for the fire, but declined to release details to substantiate their ruling, only led to more questions yesterday.

Bill Paloway, the owner of Clipper Industrial Park, called the ruling that someone set the fire "curious. I can't imagine why. I know the Fire Department has been here for weeks."

He cut short a telephone interview with The Sun when questioned about the man who sources say set the fire while repairing a leaky roof, only to disappear after giving investigators what they called misleading information.

But Mr. Paloway told the Associated Press that an employee of his had done work on the roof, but he denied the man was on the roof shortly before the fire started.

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