Eastern Market Fire Still At Issue

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Federal investigators have ruled out electrical problems as the cause of the fire that gutted the historic Eastern Market last spring, putting them at odds with the city's fire chief, who said he is "90 percent" certain that electrical problems were to blame.

Based on a review of the scene, forensic tests and other evidence, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the electrical system "was a victim of the fire and not its cause."

The agency's assertions are part of a nine-page report obtained by The Washington Post. The report said authorities found no "arcing, shorting or failure" of wiring or any other evidence to indicate that electrical problems led to the blaze.

The differing views reflect the continuing mystery of what started the fire early April 30 in one of the District's most cherished buildings, a 134-year-old landmark on Capitol Hill. ATF said it has yet to establish the cause, and the fire department still classifies the fire's origin as "undetermined." Federal investigators have looked into the possibility of arson, though the ATF report offers no evidence that the blaze was set.

Within hours of the fire, D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin began pointing at electrical issues. Yesterday, he said he remains confident that his initial assessment was correct. "It's 90 percent likely it was caused by one of three pieces of electrical equipment," he said.

As far as the fire department is concerned, arson has been ruled out, given the evidence, Rubin said.

ATF joined the investigation as part of a regional arson task force that often helps investigate high-profile fires. Its report was based on the work of ATF and D.C. fire investigators and included findings from an ATF laboratory.

The report said that a D.C. fire dog named Sparky, trained to detect accelerants, turned up no sign of ignitable liquids. Investigators also determined that the market's doors were locked, and they found no indication of tampering.

ATF spokesman Mike Campbell said the probe is continuing. He declined to comment further on the report, which he said was not meant to be publicly released.

The Washington City Paper posted a story about the report in its online edition yesterday.

Rubin's early focus on electrical problems, perhaps a faulty outlet, led vendors and others to criticize the city for not acting years ago to improve the wiring there. In 2003, an advisory committee called for electrical improvements, but the city held off until it could launch a broader renovation plan.

Vendors remain open at a temporary location while the city works on a rebuilding effort that could cost up to $30 million. The restoration is to be complete in 2009.

Several vendors said yesterday that they were more focused on maintaining their businesses than resolving why two agencies disagreed over the fire's cause.

"It doesn't really matter what caused it. There's nothing I can do," said Jose Canales, whose deli in the South Hall was in the area where authorities agree that the fire probably started. No one was hurt in the blaze.

Dan Donahue, owner of a fruit and vegetable stand outside the market, said that if a sprinkler system had been installed in the city-owned building, the fire -- no matter the cause -- would not have been as damaging. "We have not had the proper oversight of this place," he said.

ATF and D.C. fire investigators thoroughly examined the burned-out market, spending nearly a week combing the scene. The most extensive damage occurred along the South Hall, where the food stalls and lunch counter are located. The report indicates that authorities gave considerable attention to a pair of walk-in freezers inside the market and two dumpsters outside the building, which sustained fire damage.

The report quoted a witness as saying that he saw one of the dumpsters, as well as the market, on fire. The witness, who spotted the blaze before firetrucks arrived and called 911, described a continuous fire reaching about three feet above the dumpster, the report said.

Vendors previously complained that the managers of the market had let the dumpsters overflow with cardboard and other waste. Some raised questions in the days after the fire about whether the dumpsters might have been a factor and whether the fire was set.

But the ATF report reaches no conclusions on that issue. It said one dumpster contained a compactor and was filled with trash; that dumpster's lid was melted, the report said. The second dumpster was empty, although the trash inside probably burned in the fire.

Kirk Callan Smith, an attorney representing a client who coordinates outdoor space at the market on Sundays, said he remains suspicious about the dumpsters' role in the fire, especially because the Capitol Hill area has had a rash of dumpster fires in recent months. Smith recently sent a letter to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) on behalf of his client, Tom Rall, seeking compensation for vendors because of what he called years of poor upkeep.

"If you were trying to build a bonfire, you couldn't do a better job," Smith said about the dumpsters outside the market. "The cardboard boxes stacked up 10 feet off the ground."

Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.

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