Schmoke demands complete account on investigation into Clipper Mill blaze Weak report could lead to action against fire chief

January 06, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is demanding a full accounting on the investigation into the fatal Clipper Industrial Park fire, and indicated yesterday that an unsatisfactory report could lead to action against the fire chief.

While stressing that he had no immediate plans to replace Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., the mayor said he wants to be satisfied that Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer did not die as a result of negligence.

He also wants assurances that police and fire investigators, who disagree on what caused the nine-alarm blaze in Woodberry, can work together on future cases without them ending in public discord.

"I told [Chief Williams] that I was not seeking his resignation or anything like that, but if we didn't get these things ironed out then that might cause me to rethink his status," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday.

The comments follow the public scolding he gave Chief Williams at his weekly news conference Thursday, in which Mr. Schmoke said he was angry the chief did not defend his department in a Dec. 23 article by The Sun.

In that article, fire officials insisted the Sept. 16 fire was set intentionally and were waiting for police to establish a motive and make an arrest. But police and fire sources complained that they are chasing a "ghost arsonist" created to divert attention from a dead firefighter.

Police sources also said they did not believe the fire was set intentionally and complained that the report they finally received from the Fire Department was woefully inadequate.

Questions also have been raised about whether fire commanders should have realized the burning building was unsafe and moved firefighters away from the wall, which collapsed on Mr. Schaefer and 17 other firefighters, who were injured.

Chief Williams, in an interview Thursday, said the allegation that negligence contributed to the death "is a personal attack on me There is nobody to blame. The wall fell, and Eric Schaefer died. We don't have anything to hide."

The chief, who did not return messages left by a reporter through his spokesman yesterday, said Thursday that the report on the wall collapse will be made public in a few weeks.

Mr. Schmoke has ordered his own report, which he said will document "all of the decision making, who made what calls, all the way through until the fire was declared under control."

The mayor added that he has "a lot of confidence in Chief Williams" and that "at no time have I ever had feelings that I should question his judgment or that he wasn't doing a very good and professional job."

But asked what would happen if he was not satisfied with Chief Williams' report, the mayor said: "Then I'll have to seriously look into the question of whether some personnel action has to be taken."

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