Mayor tells fire, police chiefs to end fight Dispute about xTC Clipper Mill blaze angers Schmoke

January 05, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Angered by a dispute between fire and police investigators probing the fatal Clipper Industrial Park fire, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sternly warned his department heads yesterday that the squabble must end or people will be fired.

The mayor also publicly chided Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. for not defending his department in a Dec. 23 article by The Sun in which police questioned the ruling by fire officials that the nine-alarm blaze was intentionally set.

City officials are concerned that airing the internal strife may undermine public confidence in the investigation. Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer died and 17 other firefighters were injured when a wall collapsed.

"There is still a lot of emotion surrounding Firefighter Schaefer's death," the mayor said at his weekly news conference, referring to questions about whether fire commanders should have realized the burning building was unsafe and moved firefighters away from the wall.

"The disputes may fuel the controversy about what happened on the site," Mr. Schmoke said. He added that he is not aware of any violations "which would lead somebody to believe that decision-making on the part of higher-ups in the fire department led to Firefighter Schaefer's death."

Mr. Schmoke ordered Chief Williams and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to meet and develop strategies of cooperation, which he said had been strained in the wake of the blaze.

"Whoever stands in the way of creating a team collaborative approach is going to be fired," Mr. Schmoke said. "I am not going to have squabbling among the major public safety agencies. They either get on board with this team approach or they leave."

Fire officials insist that the Sept. 16 fire in Woodberry was set intentionally and are waiting for police to establish a motive and make an arrest. But police and fire sources complained in an article in The Sun last month that they are chasing a "ghost arsonist" created to divert attention from a dead firefighter.

Police sources said they did not believe the fire was arson and complained that the report they finally got from the Fire Department was woefully inadequate and lacked such specifics as names and a detailed description of the cause and origin of the blaze.

Chief Williams declined to comment for that article, but yesterday he said the allegation that negligence contributed to the death "is a personal attack on me. It attacks my reputation. It attacks my integrity. It attacks my professionalism. There is nobody to blame. The wall fell, and Eric Schaefer died. We don't have anything to hide."

The chief said that the report on the wall collapse, which includes interviews with firefighters, commanders and an independent review by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, will be made public in a few weeks.

But Chief Williams said he was unaware of a clash between the police and fire departments until the article in The Sun. "That's not to say that there may not have been some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement with lower level investigators," he said. "There was never anything brought to my attention."

He said he would work to improve the relationship between police and fire investigators. Currently, fire investigators determine the cause and origin of a fire. Police arson investigators find out if a crime occurred.

"This particular case leads me to believe that we ought to take a fresh look at that," Mr. Schmoke said. "All of that will be reviewed, and I believe there will be some changes."

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