Evidence may have been destroyed in effort to fight hotel fire

Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The cause of the fire that destroyed a hotel nearing completion in downtown Anchorage remains a mystery, and the Anchorage Fire Department is looking into whether firefighters may have disturbed the scene so much that investigators may never be able to determine what happened.

Deputy fire chief, Dennis Hoke, who supervised the scene, has been placed on administrative leave, but officials declined to discuss the internal investigation.

The fire broke out about 2:30 a.m. April 9. The four-story building was due to open June 1. The loss of the $4.9 million building is the costliest fire loss in the city since 1979.

While firefighters had it contained within a couple of hours, the fire continued smoldering underneath the debris pile throughout the morning.

Jim Whitters, owner of Whitters Excavating, said hotel construction superintendent Bob Megee called him about 8 a.m. requesting a backhoe ''right away'' to tear down scaffolding that was close to collapsing. Whitters' son Jamey went to work at the direction of firefighters.

''Then they asked us if we would walk partially into the building with the tractor and move some of the burning pieces out into the (courtyard) so they could get the fire out,'' Jim Whitters said.

This went on for three or four hours, he estimated.

Jamey Whitters said he received instructions over a Fire Department radio. As he moved the still flaming debris, he was told to stop four or five times, he said.

''They were trying to decide whether to proceed or not,'' he said.

Finally Jamey Whitters was told by firefighters to leave.

''They said they were getting their butts chewed by the investigators for stirring it around and they were going to have to stop and wait,'' Jamey Whitters said.

Carol Olson, deputy state fire marshal, is assisting the Anchorage Fire Department with the investigation. Olson said it's ''always a tough call'' for a fire scene commander to decide whether to aggressively extinguish the blaze with the possibility of contaminating evidence or let it burn out slowly.

''Generally, the fire is doing a lot of destruction anyway, and typically you would want to preserve the scene as best you can until the investigators get in there,'' she said.

Deputy Chief Tom Kempton said Hoke's suspension is a personnel matter that he cannot discuss. Fire Chief John Fullenwider also would not talk about it.

Hoke's work phone message says he is out of the office until at least Wednesday. His home number has been disconnected, and he could not be reached for comment.

Because of the extent of the loss, the Fire Department requested help from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' National Response Team. Its agents arrived April 10.

The local, state and federal investigative team began combing the debris April 11, including walking an accelerant-sniffing dog around.

''We will stay here until everybody is satisfied that we have tried to the best of our ability to determine where the fire originated and what caused it,'' Joe Riehl of Baltimore, the ATF agent supervising the team, said that morning.

But three days later, Riehl said his agents were on planes home, having turned the investigation over to the Fire Department.

In a telephone interview Friday, Riehl declined to answer questions about the state of the fire scene when ATF agents arrived.

''We did as much as we possibly could,'' he said. ''Cause and origin are not an easy thing ever to come up with.''

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