The fire this time

The Coe School blaze leaves no answers—just new questions and a shake-up in Seattle's arson investigations.

THE EMBERS had scarcely cooled before investigators reached an explanation for the fire that scorched the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture last week: so-called "eco-terrorism," perhaps directed at poplar-breeding research mistaken for transgenic experiments. But four months after an even bigger fire did five times as much dollar damage to another cherished educational facility, investigators are ready to throw in the towel. It looks like the January 21 blaze that immolated Coe Elementary School mid-renovation will join the drawerful of fires filed under "undetermined origin." Though inconclusive, the investigation has had other repercussions: It's helped trigger a major change in the way Seattle investigates arsons and raised new questions about how they'll be handled in the future. And that future may be a hot one, if the fears of this region's top federal fire investigator come true.

At Coe's Queen Anne site, which till last week looked like Dresden 1945, at least one subcontractor thought the fire had already been pinned on arson. That seemed likely from the start, considering the speed with which the heavy-timbered old school (which was closed for renovation) went up, lighting the midnight sky. "They suspected it," says Seattle School spokesman Bill Southern, "but needed to confirm it. A few days after the fire they said they were nearly done." With no finding forthcoming, other rumors rose: One of the heaters being used to keep the plaster from freezing had ignited. Crashing transients or partying teenagers had tipped over something they shouldn't have. ("Guess that means no more parties in there," one young onlooker was overheard muttering as the flames roared.)

None of these explanations panned out, says the Seattle Fire Department's head of investigations, Captain Bob Pringle: "We still have a few details to wrap up, but we'll be delivering a final report soon. We will probably leave this fire 'undetermined.'" Several potential accidental causes—transients, heaters, and "spider box" junctions—have been eliminated, he says. "But we could not conclusively say whether the main electrical cable [powering the heaters] had failed or not." Both lab work and sniffing dogs failed to find the accelerants that might confirm arson. And none of the usual arson motives seemed to pertain: No disgruntled workers or subcontractors had been fired. Neither the renovation contractor nor, certainly, the owner (the Seattle Schools) stood to gain by torching a project that was going well. The hallowed, historic school with its classic woodwork and magnificent columns was not the sort of eyesore neighbors might want to eliminate (especially when doing so would expose them to yet another ordeal of construction rockin' and roarin').

Still, the most elusive and persistent fire-bugging occurs in the absence of such nominally rational motives—one reason that only around 3 percent of arsons are ever solved. In 1992 and '93, a loose-screwed ad salesman named Paul Keller lit around 80 fires in a six-month, $22 million arson spree in and around Seattle—just for kicks.

THE COE FIRE raised blood pressures in the Fire Department as well as the neighborhood. One fire investigator wrote a stinging internal memo critiquing its handling. According to KING-5 News, which received a copy, the memo (which the department has since destroyed) complained that the "no commanding officer" was at the fire scene, firehouses provided poor support or none, security was botched, and improper equipment and insufficient investigators were assigned to the investigation. Pringle defends the investigation and calls the memo "constructive, not detrimental," pointed toward "things we should look for in another big fire."

Pringle says a police sergeant asked for and obtained a copy of the memo, and afterward it got to the media. How? "No one in the Fire Department had it out of the building," Pringle says. The SPD media office would not let that sergeant speak to me.

Now, partially because of the memo, the Fire Department will no longer play its accustomed role in future arson cases. "Unfortunately, it was used as a political tool," complains Pringle. For time beyond mind, the Fire Department's investigators (who received police training and commissions) carried arson cases through to the end, with the advice of a police sergeant and detective stationed at the main firehouse. Captain Pringle says this arrangement is "the national trend because it works."

Not so, says Police Sergeant Ken Crow, who heads SPD's Arson/Bomb Squad: The "present model" nationwide is for police to investigate arson as they do other crimes. Seattle Police had long chafed at not having this authority, and the dustup over Coe seems to have helped them to acquire it.

In February, Mayor Schell stepped in, in the words of spokesman Dick Lilly, "to get the police and fire departments to clarify roles and lines of authority in arson, in order to get the highest degree of effectiveness from the resources available." Translation: "Mayor to Fire Department: Yield to the police." The Fire Department signed an agreement relinquishing criminal investigations to police after it makes a determination of arson. SPD's "Fraud/ Explosives Squad" shed its fraud duties and became the "Arson/Bomb Squad."

Will Seattle be safer from firebugs and fire-insurance scammers with the cops now on their trail? Depends on who you talk to. "That's a battle that's being fought in major cities all across the country," says Art Ahrens, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' supervisor over arson investigations in Western Washington. Police detectives have the experience in criminal procedure and evidence; fire investigators are expert at deciphering a fire's cryptic clues, and dealing with the hordes of insurance investigators and lawyers that descend on a big scene like Coe. And, as Ahrens notes, they're "very passionate" about solving arson, which endangers their own colleagues. Either mastery takes years to acquire.

Cooperation remains the underlying goal, and Pringle suggests a third way to achieve it: form a joint arson squad with police and fire specialists and an assigned prosecutor, and give it separate quarters away from both departments and their rivalries. Police Sergeant Crow agrees "that would be ideal." Any bets the budget-shocked city would want to pay for that?

However it handles torchings, the city may have more to handle soon. Crow says his squad has had a "surprising volume" of arson cases—63—since taking them on in February. They've been small stuff—car burnings, dumpster fires, and so on. Big insurance arsons have been rare in recent years, says BATF's Ahrens, because owners tend not to torch when values are climbing. But now that values have plateaued, he is reminded of the early '80s recession when "a good portion of Pierce County burned down" in fraud and extortion schemes. "The minute the economy changes, we will not be able to get five minutes' rest. We'll be locking people up right and left."

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