Searching for clues among the ashes

Blaze: Fire investigators' work continues long after the flames are out.

April 19, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

With crack vials and broken bottles crunching under his heavy boots, fire investigator Anthony L. Czepik shuffled along a West Baltimore sidewalk eyeing the scene - the remains of yet another blaze in an abandoned rowhouse.

Czepik entered the cavernous three-story building and switched on his flashlight, its beam revealing charred wood dangling from the ceiling and a yawning hole in the floor.

In a back room, the investigator examined the walls and ceiling, cataloging the distinctive burn patterns that told him that the fire started right there. Dropping to his knees, Czepik dug with his gloved hands though a pile of smoldering detritus. Some of it innocuous - a sweat shirt, a pie pan, a milk carton. Some of it telling - a hypodermic needle, a used condom, a cigarette lighter. The debris pointed Czepik to the fire's probable cause: a careless drug user who had been using the building as a shooting gallery.

"This is not Hollywood," said Czepik, a captain in the city Fire Department's fire investigation bureau, describing his work. "It's dirty and it's hard."

The blaze that destroyed the building in the 1600 block of McCulloh St. one recent night was typical of the 1,100 fires - almost half of them arsons - that Czepik and seven other captains in the fire investigation bureau examine each year.

Their labor is critical for homeowners and businesses trying to recover insurance money and even more important to police detectives who handle the criminal investigations of the city's hundreds of arsons.

Called the epitome of a solid fire investigator by his supervisor, Czepik works on cases at home and puts extra time into fatal fires. He empathizes with those who have lost precious belongings, and he has an easy way with witnesses.

"He is thorough, he takes his time, he considers all the options and with his experience he just knows what to look for and where to look for it," said division Chief Theodore Saunders, commander of the city's fire marshal's office, which includes the fire investigation bureau. "It's important for any investigator to be thorough and not to be quick to draw conclusions. They have to let the evidence of the fire take them to the cause and origin. That is the kind of guy Tony is."

Seeking a challenge

With a stocky build and a thick plume of hair, Czepik, 50, grew up the son of a steel worker and a housewife in Northeast Baltimore. A 1970 graduate of Archbishop Curley High School, he didn't always dream of being a firefighter. Instead, Czepik wanted to work with children and became director of a city recreation center. But after 15 years at that job, he wanted something new and joined the Fire Department.

"I wanted something a little more physical," Czepik said. "I thought [firefighting] was a challenge."

Six years after joining the Fire Department, he was promoted to lieutenant, and eventually was assigned to the fire academy as a trainer. In 1995, he was promoted to captain and sent into the field to battle fires again. But by 2000, he was growing restless and requested a transfer to the investigation bureau, a job he thought would be more mentally stimulating.

He was right.

Czepik has taken dozens of classes at the fire academy, at national institutes and from federal agencies to learn about burn patterns, the chemical analysis of flammable liquids and the physics of flame and smoke. He had a long apprenticeship - 100 fires with a veteran - before being allowed to investigate one on his own.

The dark side

Although the job can be cerebral, even academic at times, it has also given Czepik a smoky lens into the darker side of human nature - particularly when sloshing through dirty water and trash in long-abandoned homes. Or when he's responding to a fire call because an angry girlfriend has burned a stuffed animal given to her as a gift. Or, when he finds himself standing alone next to a body in a burned-out room illuminated by the dancing red-and-white glow of fire engine lights.

"The vacant homes, my God, there are a lot of fires caused by drugs and homeless activity," he said. "There is so much destruction of property and the destruction of the people who live in those places."

He often recalls one of his first investigations, a fire in a vacant Northwest Baltimore rowhouse.

It was a small, even unremarkable little blaze - until firefighters removed debris from a backroom and found the charred body of a woman lying face down on the floor. Her hands were tied behind her back, and Czepik watched as officials lifted the woman from the floor. Her eyes were bulging from their sockets; her mouth was open, as if she were screaming.

"She had this look of pure horror and terror, and I'll remember that face for the rest of my life," said Czepik, who has investigated six other fire fatalities, many of them elderly who succumbed to smoke and flame as they crawled for help.

At the scene

As extraordinary as Czepik's work can be, it is accomplished in the most routine of fashions.

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.