Sunday's 5-alarm fire (picture at left by The Sun's Algerina Perna) at an empty warehouse in Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood recalls another horrific blaze in 1995 in the nearby Clipper Mill complex. A 25-year-old firefighter, Eric D. Schaefer, died when a wall collapsed.
The cause has never been determined but the death and the investigation shook the Fire Department and the city. The parents of the firefighter complained that their son had been sent unprepared into a dangerous situation while police and fire investigators argued about whether it was sparked by accident or by arson.
I remember sittting in the parent's house as fire officials briefed Schaefer's family on how their son died. "Your son is a hero," an assistant fire child told the mom. She shot 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."
Here is part of the parent's story from that 1995 fire:
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."
And here is a longer story that I wrote for The Baltimore Sun in 1995 on the botched investigation:
The probe into the nine-alarm Clipper Industrial Park fire that killed a Baltimore firefighter has all but stalled, with investigators divided on the cause and police unhappy with what they call an incomplete investigation that left them little to work with.
While top fire officials insist the Sept. 16 blaze was set intentionally and are waiting for police to establish a motive and make an arrest, sources in the fire and police departments complain they are chasing a "ghost arsonist" created to divert attention from a dead firefighter.
Meanwhile, a series of reports obtained by The Sun show that fire investigators explored several possible causes, from neighborhood teens to faulty wiring to an artist who was repairing a leaky roof hours before the blaze.
Arson detectives "are not convinced that it is incendiary," one highly placed police source said. "At this point, investigators are beginning to feel that we will never know what started the fire."
Police complain that the report they finally got from the Fire Department was woefully inadequate, containing only four or five pages and lacking such specifics as names and a detailed description of the cause and origin of the blaze.
"It seemed short of hard-core facts," a police source said. "I would expect a book from the Fire Department, not the few pages that they forwarded. It was a dump job. They dumped it on us with a whole lot of pressure."
Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. declined to be interviewed for this article.
"Nobody in the Police Department has said anything to him [Chief Williams] about any problems," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman. "The investigation has gone smoothly with the Police Department."
The fire began about 9:40 p.m. on a rainy Saturday night and leveled the block-long iron foundry most recently used for artist studios. Fire officials pinpointed the fire's origin in the attic in the center of the structure, near where power lines went through the roof.
Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer, 25, died while fighting the blaze when a two-story granite wall collapsed, trapping him and others under tons of rock. Seventeen firefighters were injured.
A separate investigation is being conducted to determine why the wall collapsed and whether firefighters should have been inside or near the burning structure. A Fire Department spokesman said the report should be made public early next month.
Two fire investigators and police sources familiar with the inquiry contend top fire officials are pushing arson as the cause to divert attention from the wall collapse. "This ghost arsonist is the bad guy," a fire official said. "He's the one who killed Eric Schaefer."
One fire investigator said there "is a tremendous lack of evidence to suggest it was arson." Another fire official, asked if there is proof that the fire was intentionally set, simply answered: "Nothing at all."
Chief Torres dismissed those complaints as rumors that will be addressed in detail in the January report. "There is no conspiracy -- no attempt to hide anything."
The morning after the blaze, fire Capt. Stephen G. Fugate knew he needed help from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, saying the devastation was "beyond my ability" and "beyond local resources," a fire report states.
ATF agents sent home
But fire officials told ATF that its help was not needed and sent the angry agents home. The dispute became public a few days later. The situation made police detectives "less comfortable" working on the case, a commander said.
The investigation then focused on Randy Gadsden, a tenant. He had been repairing a leaky roof hours before the fire was reported. His account is contained in a summary of his statements to fire investigators, which was obtained by The Sun.
Mr. Gadsden said he had worked on the roof from noon until 6 p.m. He said he was replacing the slate and rotten roof decking near where the power lines came into the roof.
From 7 p.m. to about 9 p.m., Mr. Gadsden said, he was in the shop, cutting forms from three-eighths-inch steel using a plasma cutter. Shortly before 9 p.m., he said, his partner and the shop owner, Vicky McCarthy, drove him to the Mount Washington Tavern for dinner and then to his apartment about 9:30 p.m.
Ms. McCarthy said that she returned to her shop about 9:50 p.m. As she turned onto Clipper Park Drive, she saw a dark green pickup truck. The driver told her there was an electrical fire.
One fire report says that one of the "distinct possibilities as to cause was the activities of Mr. Randy Gadsden in his work involving the roof repair work."
At least three fire investigators, according to sources, believe the blaze and roof repairs are connected, and that the fire was accidental. Two said it could be from a blow torch or a dropped cigarette that slowly smoldered.
The report says there are several discrepancies in Ms. McCarthy's and Mr. Gadsden's statements. In an interview, Ms. McCarthy attributed that to simple misstatements made under stress of losing her livelihood.
Critical of investigation
In an interview, Mr. Gadsden said he could not have started the fire. He admitted to smoking while repairing the roof, but said he stopped about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Mr. Gadsden said he never felt he was a suspect, but he doesn't think the investigation is credible.
"I don't really think they know where they are," he said. "I kind of get the feeling that they don't know where they are."
In late September, Captain Fugate said, he refused orders to interview suspects because fire investigators only determine cause and origin of a blaze. Instead, he put himself on medical leave, and eventually was detailed to an engine company. Capt. John R. Griffith, the senior fire investigator, was put in charge.
The Fire Department held its first news conference in October. Chief Torres said the cause of the fire was incendiary -- meaning intentionally set. He stopped short of calling it arson, which would mean it was set with the intent of burning down the building.
But in response to a reporter's question, the spokesman said: "It's tough for me to come up with a scenario for this that would not be arson." Captain Griffith added: "We have to find motive."
Captain Griffith's summary report, obtained by The Sun, concludes that the fire was set because it was a "fast fire as opposed to a slow smoldering type." He wrote that the building is in a heavily traveled area and that the fire would have been noticed quickly.
The report says the fire consumed the building and 465-foot long roof "in a matter of minutes. All possible accidental causes were considered and eliminated."
In November, the Fire Department released a brief statement saying it had concluded its investigation, which was then in the hands of the Police Department. But police investigators say the report only raises more questions.
The report says the fire started at the northwest end of the building, not near the center where power lines come in. The report blames teen-agers, two of whom were brought in to police headquarters and questioned for seven hours. Neither was charged. The police source said detectives believe the teens were named as scapegoats by the Fire Department.
In a summary of interviews with key witnesses and suspects obtained by The Sun, one person said he saw six or seven "young boys running from the scene" about five minutes before the fire was reported. The witness described the youths as "troublemakers."
Investigators say that Samuel Johnston, vice president of the Woodberry Community Association, offers an alibi for the teens.
Mr. Johnston said he ran into the youths when he ran outside after seeing the fire from his bedroom window. They were "huffing and puffing," he said. "They asked me, where are you going. I said that Clipper Mill is on fire, let's go see what's going on."
Tenants of Clipper Park, such as Jim Ellis, who owns the Clipper City Rock Gym, an artificial-rock climbing facility, blame the fire on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Mr. Ellis was quoted in the report as saying he heard a loud popping sound, "which he associated with the failure of an electrical transformer." He walked out of the Rock Gym and said he saw the top of a telephone pole on fire, fire on the roof and blazing wires hanging from the pole.
Fire reports say that engineers ruled out BGE. They had looked at a 15-foot steel tower on top of the flat roof that guides power lines into the building, but city and utility officials ruled that out as the cause.
"There is evidence of electrical activity in the area of the service panels, but it is believed that this was the result of the fire, not the cause of the fire," the report says.
In the report, BGE and city engineers offer a variety of technical reasons as to why their equipment did not spark the fire, saying that fusing equipment designed to protect the wires functioned properly.
Peggy Mulloy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said the fire caused the transformer to blow. "If you don't know what is going on, sure you would say: 'That transformer is on fire, I heard a boom and saw a fire.' It's an understandable conclusion, but it's not accurate."
Yet as investigators puzzle over the origins of the fire, Clipper tenants are anxious over the lack of progress.
"I would suspect that after this amount of time that no one will come up with a solution," said Greg Butcher, the owner of Augustus Woodcrafter. "I think this whole thing has been covered up."
Mr. Ellis said the investigation "stinks" and added that the parents and wife of Firefighter Schaefer "deserve an explanation of the truth. They are owed that."