Investigating fires Whose job?: Clipper Industrial Park fire shows need for better procedures.

January 06, 1996

IT IS HARD to find a silver lining in a story about a young firefighter who dies in a blaze in which the cause remains undetermined four months later. But the bungling and fighting ,, among public safety agencies over the investigation of the Sept. fire that destroyed Clipper Industrial Park in Woodberry may actually lead to something good. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke now says he will dismiss whoever is responsible for any continued squabbling among fire and police investigators and the city will change procedures for future fire investigations to ensure better teamwork.

Fireman Eric D. Schaefer, 25, was killed in the Clipper Mill fire when a wall collapsed; 17 others were injured in the blaze and about two dozen professional artists who had studios in the 19th century structure were left without a place to work. Investigation the fire immediately became controversial when agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had been asked to help, were abruptly told to leave by Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr.

Chief Williams complained he didn't know the ATF agents were going to step into his jurisdiction. But the initial primary investigator of the blaze, Fire Capt. Stephen C. Fugate, has insisted that he followed procedure in requesting ATF assistance by first notifying his immediate superior. Mr. Fugate said no one questioned it when he got help from ATF agents on two previous occasions in the past six months.

The investigation appears to have made little headway since the ATF was told to go home. Current procedure is for fire investigators to determine the cause of a blaze and, if arson is suspected, police investigators then continue the probe in search of a suspect. But police officers have complained that the report they finally got from the fire department is so poor they don't know which direction to take.

That is a disgrace and an insult to the family of Firefighter Schaefer, who lost his life serving this city. Mr. Schmoke is demanding a new "team approach" to fire investigation by the police and fire departments. He also wants standard procedures set for involving the state fire marshal and ATF investigators. That can't happen too soon. The cause of the Clipper Industrial Park fire must be known. If a crime has occurred, the guilty must pay.

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