Fire questions unanswered Probes completed: Results of Clipper Industrial Park inquiry are disappointing.

February 03, 1996

IT WAS HOPED that strong words from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke would lead to definitive answers of questions about the Clipper Industrial Park blaze that left a fireman dead. Instead the family of Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer still wonders whether his death could have been avoided.

A Fire Department inquiry has concluded no action by firefighters or their commanders caused Mr. Schaefer's death. His skull was crushed when a wall fell. But the difference of opinion between fire and police investigators as to the cause of ++ the fire and the fatal accident remains. No wonder the public is skeptical.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has ended her investigation with a pronouncement that there is no evidence to bring criminal charges of arson in the fire. She said she based her assessment on an insurance report that concluded the fire was sparked by an electrical malfunction. Sources close to a police inquiry had earlier claimed fire officials were asking them to chase a "ghost arsonist" who didn't exist. But even after Ms. Jessamy's report, Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. insisted the fire was caused by juveniles that witnesses claim to have spotted at the scene.

Mayor Schmoke has been frustrated by all this controversy. A Fire Department investigator's plea for assistance from federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents was abruptly withdrawn by Chief Williams, who said the request for assistance had not come from him. The ensuing investigation by city fire officials produced a report that police arson investigators called grossly inadequate. The squabbling between the two public safety agencies led Mr. Schmoke to threaten to dismiss someone unless it stopped.

Well, the bickering has ended and all investigations have been officially declared complete. But few seem completely satisfied with the results. Mr. Schmoke has said he wants new procedures established for fire investigations that stress a team approach by firefighters and police officers and that detail steps to involve the state fire marshal as well as ATF investigators. Closing the books on the Clipper Industrial Park fire shouldn't decrease the urgency for establishing new guidelines.

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