Investigators have not been able to determine what caused the massive fire at an apartment building under construction in downtown Raleigh in March, the city’s fire chief said Friday.
More than 100 investigators worked to find the cause of the fire, which started about 10 p.m. March 16 at The Metropolitan apartment building on West Jones Street. They interviewed more than 300 people, obtained search warrants and removed about 25 tons of debris, according to the city.
The cause of the fire is “undetermined” because investigators could not “definitively eliminate several accidental and incendiary scenarios.”
“These possibilities include: electrical sources, an intentional act, and the possibility of a heating fire ignited by trespassing squatters,” the city said in a news release.
Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said investigators started their work at the least-damaged areas of the five-story building and then focused on the most-damaged parts. The fire did not leave burn patterns that can be helpful to determine what started a blaze.
“The fire consumed every bit of wood and turned it into ash,” McGrath said, adding that the ash was 3 feet deep.
McGrath said the fire, which caused about $50 million in damage, was not started by a cigarette, because it could not have burned the building so quickly.
Investigators found containers for gasoline in several areas of the fire scene, McGrath said. The gas could have been used for construction tools.
He said investigators heard reports of trespassers at The Metropolitan and followed up on leads, but could not determine whether anyone had been at the site the night of the fire. He said construction crews left the site hours before the fire started.
The apartment building at the corner of West Jones and Hargett streets did not yet have a sprinkler system when it burned. The fire spread quickly and became one of the biggest infernos Raleigh has seen since the 1920s.
A photo taken by a witness appears to show the first flames emerging from a second-floor window, but McGrath said investigators could not garner any useful information based on the image.
When firefighters arrived, they sprayed water on the Quorum Center and the Link Apartments across the street to prevent the fire from spreading. The buildings were damaged, and residents were displaced.
The Link reopened about 140 apartments 15 days after the fire, but more than 50 units that were damaged by smoke and water are still not open.
Ted Reynolds, who developed the Quorum, said last month that the building sustained $20 million in damage and won’t be ready to reopen for 10 to 12 months. Some windows in the 15-story building, which has 37 condominiums, are still boarded up.
Susan Kluttz, who served as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources under former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, was displaced from her 10th-floor condominium at the Quorum.
“It was pretty much destroyed,” she said.
After the fire, Kluttz and her husband went to their home in Salisbury, north of Charlotte, but they hope to eventually return to the Quorum.
Kluttz said she was disappointed but not surprised that investigators couldn’t figure out what started the fire. The night of the blaze, she said, she went into her living room because she thought she had left a light on. But it was the glow from the flames.
“It just happened so fast, I wondered if they would ever be able to figure out what happened,” she said.
The fire also damaged a building owned by Edenton Street United Methodist Church and buildings that were occupied by the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners at the corner of Jones and Dawson streets.
In the weeks after the fire, crews used excavators to scoop up piles of rubble and drop it in large containers.
Chicago-based Banner Property Management, which was developing The Metropolitan, has said it hopes to rebuild but hasn’t set a timeline. A representative for Banner could not be reached by phone Friday.
The Raleigh Fire Department has led the investigation into the fire, with help from the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
McGrath said the investigation took place over seven days in late March and that the city would not have been able to complete the probe so quickly without help.
To help prevent more fires, McGrath said it’s important for the city to educate people about risks and to urge construction companies to ban smoking on sites and to properly secure flammables.
If new information about the fire emerges, he said, investigators will look into it. But for now, it’s possible no one will ever know what started the blaze.
“It’s really disappointing,” McGrath said. “I’d like to know – to prevent another one.”