Wake County

Raleigh seeks help solving ‘puzzle’ of downtown fire

March 2017: Massive Raleigh fire destroys one building, damages several

News & Observer photojournalist Travis Long was on the scene as firefighters began to fight a massive fire in downtown Raleigh the night of Thursday, March 16, 2017.
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News & Observer photojournalist Travis Long was on the scene as firefighters began to fight a massive fire in downtown Raleigh the night of Thursday, March 16, 2017.

Fire investigators could spend the next weeks or even months sifting through the mess left behind from a fire that burned so furiously for hours Thursday night.

To figure out what caused the blaze at an under-construction apartment building at the corner of Jones and Harrington streets, crews will look for clues scorched into the charred pieces of wood. They will analyze burn patterns and maybe send materials to a state lab to be tested for accelerants such as gasoline.

But first, Raleigh Fire Department officials plan to talk to hundreds of people who witnessed the fire, which began about 10 p.m. Thursday and spread quickly. And they’re scouring social media sites to look for posts, photos and videos that might offer some hint about what sparked the blaze.

“Determining the cause of a fire is like putting a crossword puzzle together. You don’t know what you’ve got until you get all the pieces and put them in place,” said Charlie Johnson, deputy director of the Wake County Fire Services Department.

The pile of rubble that spans nearly an entire downtown city block will remain as investigators determine what caused the fire. Along with the city fire department, the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives are working the case.

Capt. Preston Gaster, a lead investigator for the Raleigh Fire Department, said the city requested help because of “the magnitude of the potential loss.” He declined to say how long it might take to determine the cause.

“I can’t even guess,” he said.

Johnson, who is not involved in the investigation, suggested the process could take a while because the five-story Metropolitan building burned so hot for so long and then collapsed, scattering some evidence.

“The scope of the fire has a huge impact on your ability to determine the cause in a quick manner,” Johnson said.

“Taxpayers want answers right now,” he continued. “But the reality is that there’s a systematic process they have to go through. The last thing they want to do is determine the cause of the fire and then have to change (the) statement a couple weeks later if new evidence emerges.”

VIDEO: Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath talks about the fire that destroyed the unfinished Metropolitan apartment building downtown and damaged other nearby residential buildings. McGrath says the fire, one of the largest in Raleigh in a century, c

Gaster said the fire department has employees who are looking at social media posts. The department is asking anyone with pertinent information about the fire to email RFDinvestigations@icloud.com.

Typically, investigators follow a methodical process established by the National Fire Protection Association when investigating a burn site, Johnson and Gaster said.

First, they must secure the site by cutting any electrical lines and making sure the rubble is cool enough to inspect. Then they search for and talk to witnesses.

“We have officers patrolling the area and talking to people,” Gaster said.

Raleigh firefighters continued to hose down hot spots Friday morning after a fire that destroyed a construction project and damaged several surrounding buildings. The fire started Thursday night and forced the evacuation of several buildings.

Investigators can sometimes tell how close a piece of wood was to a fire’s point of origin based on its burns. Johnson said they might be able to glean valuable information by studying the direction a construction crane fell.

“It’s a very tedious process,” he said. “Based on the scope of the fire, it can get drawn out for several days or months.”

It’s possible that investigators won’t ever be able determine what started the fire, he said.

“There are fires that occur that based on all these factors, the investigators may not be able to conclusively say that the fire resulted from A, B or C,” Johnson said. “We hate those. As an investigator, we can’t learn from it if we can’t determine what happened.”

The fire department had done 91 inspections of the under-construction building, city spokesman John Boyette said Monday.

Construction crews had not yet installed sprinklers or fire-retardant walls in The Metropolitan, he said.

Crews were in the “rough-in” stage, meaning they were installing plumbing and electrical services in the cavities of walls before Sheetrock could be added, said Keith Tessinear, an assistant fire chief in Raleigh.

He would not say whether electrical wiring had been installed.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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