Fire officials' reports on blaze concern mayor

February 01, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday he is troubled by Fire Department reports on the cause of the fatal Clipper Industrial Park blaze that were submitted to prosecutors, and he indicated that outside help may be called in on future multiple-alarm fires.

He said that two reports contain contradictory information and that he supported State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's decision not to prosecute youths targeted by fire investigators.

"Even if you accept the Fire Department's conclusion, there is insufficient information to prosecute anybody," Mr. Schmoke said, adding that the reports contained "factual conflicts."

The nine-alarm Sept. 16 fire destroyed a 19th-century iron foundry used by an artists community in Woodberry. Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer died when a granite wall collapsed.

The intense investigation was marred from the start, when a fire investigator called in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), only to have Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. send the federal agents home, saying outside help was not needed.

Then the fire and police investigators disagreed over the cause, and police detectives, who believed the fire was accidental, complained that a report they received was inadequate.

Yesterday, the mayor said he planned no personnel action against Chief Williams, but wants him to work out new procedures that could bring in the state fire marshal's office and ATF to help during major fires.

Chief Williams attributed differences in the two reports to a change in investigators. "I don't think they're really hard discrepancies," the chief said.

Mr. Schmoke said Mrs. Jessamy, who believes an electrical malfunction caused the fire, has sent the reports back to Chief Williams highlighting inconsistencies.

Among the inconsistencies:

* Although the initial report given to Mrs. Jessamy's office says a young teen-ager confessed to setting small fires in the complex, it offers no details as to when this occurred or in what part of the massive structure.

* The initial report names a youth as a primary suspect. But the supplemental report concludes that the fire was set by "persons unknown at this time" and says that there is no eyewitness account, hard physical evidence "or an admission of cause by the unidentified perpetrator."

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