Negligence ruled out in firefighter's death But angry parents continue to allege department cover-up

January 27, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Fire Department board concluded yesterday that fire officials were not negligent when a granite wall collapsed during the Clipper Industrial Park blaze and killed a Baltimore firefighter, but frustrated family members are charging that there is a cover-up.

The six-member Board of Inquiry of fire commanders and union members said the September fire was not always fought "by the book," but it ruled that minor tactical errors did not lead to the death of Eric D. Schaefer.

Investigators cite several factors leading to the collapse, including the antiquated construction of the 19th-century iron foundry.

They also report that Firefighter Schaefer may not have been wearing his helmet when he was buried under tons of debris while fighting the nine-alarm blaze.

The report, which includes a detailed analysis by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, says the structure of the massive building and pace of the fire should not have caused the front wall to fall outward on the firefighters.

"No one viewed the front of the building as a safety hazard," the report says. "Historically, walls constructed of two feet of thick granite stone do not collapse, even under severe fire conditions. The chain reaction created when the roof trusses burned could not have been foreseen."

The dead firefighter's parents, Dorian and Suellyn Schaefer, met yesterday with fire officials at their Northeast Baltimore home, trying to get answers while expressing months of pent-up anger. They questioned why an independent agency wasn't brought in to investigate, and demanded to know the truth of rumors that commanders ordered firefighters into the building and called them cowards when they objected.

"We can't trust the Fire Department," Mrs. Schaefer told Assistant Fire Chief Raymond Lehr during the meeting that lasted several tumultuous hours. "We haven't gotten respect."

Fire officials said the Schaefers' son died while trying to help fallen colleagues, but his parents continued to insist yesterday that there was time to evacuate the area before the collapse.

"A warning could have been given," Mrs. Schaefer told Chief Lehr, her tearful voice breaking as she struggled to get her point across. "There was time. I believe there was time," she said.

"Your son is a hero," the assistant chief answered, trying to offer comfort. "Don't let your anger take that away."

Mrs. Schaefer snapped back: "He's been a hero since the day he was born. He didn't need to join the Fire Department to prove that to anyone."

The fire, one of the most intense in at least several decades,

destroyed the Clipper Mill complex in Woodberry, most recently used for artists' studios. Fire investigators concluded neighborhood youths set the blaze, but the state's attorney in Baltimore has said there is not enough evidence to charge anyone with arson.

The report released yesterday will be submitted to state safety officials for review. The Schaefers have asked why state or federal agencies weren't asked to join the investigation, but fire officials said yesterday their inquiry was fair because it had union oversight.

The contentious probe into the cause of the fire led to bickering between the police and fire departments. Rumors of incompetence at the fire scene prompted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to demand a full accounting of the wall collapse. He could not be reached for comment last night.

The report offers this account:

Firefighter Schaefer arrived at the fire at 9:58 p.m., one minute after the fifth alarm was sounded, as part of a specialized unit that works to extricate people and vent burning buildings.

He joined other firefighters in cutting a 60-inch-by-36-inch opening on the east end of the building, which was clear of fire and smoke. The main body of the fire was several hundred feet away, near the center of the structure.

Once the doorway was open, Firefighter Schaefer began venting a window, but first had to cut burglar bars off with a saw. Six or seven firefighters went inside with a hose to get to the flames.

At 10:10 p.m., Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. arrived and assumed command. In previous interviews, the chief said he peeked into the door opening, decided he "didn't want anyone in the building" and ordered a commander to evacuate it of firefighters.

The report concludes that based on interviews with firefighters who were near the wall that collapsed, no one was ordered to enter the building. "Personnel said they were not asked to do anything they considered dangerous," the report concludes.

All firefighters got out safely except Lt. Paul Novak and Firefighter John Scarpati. They saw the roof begin to fall and dove into the wall opening firefighters created.

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