Survivors of fireman angry inquiry was closed Parents of Clipper victim decry interagency dispute

January 26, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

Parents of a firefighter killed in the Clipper Industrial Park fire reacted angrily yesterday to what they called a botched investigation and said the constant bickering by city agencies has left them in agony.

"My wife said it's hell, but it's agony. You can't put things to rest when so much controversy about this fire is going on," said Dorian Schaefer, whose son, Eric, was crushed under tons of rubble when a granite wall collapsed.

"Nobody tells you the truth," Mr. Schaefer said. "One city agency is pushing another city agency. I think they all are trying to cover their butts."

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. released a 78-page report yesterday to buttress the conclusion reached by his investigators that juveniles set the fire Sept. 16, despite a prosecutor's decision Wednesday that there was no supporting evidence of arson.

The report says at least one youth admitted burning paper inside the old iron foundry, most recently used for artists' studios. But the report falls short of linking youths to the nine-alarm blaze.

"It is so frustrating that a man died, and we will never know what happened," said Fire Capt. Stephen G. Fugate, the initial lead investigator.

Yesterday, Chief Williams alternately defended the investigation, which has been questioned by city police who don't believe the fire was set, and lashed out at critics who charge negligence led to the firefighter's death.

A separate Fire Department investigation into the collapse of the wall is to be made public today. Yesterday, Chief Williams denied again that he ordered firefighters into the burning building shortly before the wall tumbled. Seventeen firefighters also were injured.

The fire chief said that if he lost a son under similar circumstances, "I would want some answers. There was no cover-up. We had a tragedy happen. I wanted to get to the bottom of it just as much as anybody."

On Wednesday, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy decided there was no evidence to bring criminal charges. She says that, based on an insurance report, the fire was sparked by an electrical malfunction.

"I just think there should be closure here," Mrs. Jessamy said yesterday. "A person lost his life; individuals lost their livelihoods. We need to attempt to be as objective and reasonable as possible in determining where we're going with this.

"For me to hold out for some kind of chance of finding some arsonist, or some incendiary cause for this, I just don't see it."

The report released yesterday says a nearby resident saw six or seven boys running out of the park about five minutes before the fire was reported. The witness, Mike Frey, described the neighborhood youths as "troublemakers."

"All of the juveniles admitted to starting fires in the Hampden, Woodberry area in the past," according to the report. "The fires were set in playgrounds and in various dwellings, but the Fire Department was never notified."

Investigators gave their top suspect a lie detector test. "He failed every answer," the report says. "He finally admitted that he was 'setting pieces of paper on fire and placing the burning paper in windows in the building.' "

Fire Capt. John R. Griffith wrote in the report that he is "confident that every possible lead has been pursued, every possible accidental cause has been eliminated and the statements given by the juvenile, admitting to setting fires around the involved building, corroborate my opinion."

Answers to questions about negligence should come today. Meanwhile, the Schaefers try to understand why their son died and why city agencies charged with investigating the death only end up in public discord.

"We can handle the truth," Mr. Schaefer said. "Can they?"

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.