Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Investigators are making “excellent progress,” and city officials could be releasing preliminary findings from the Salisbury Millwork fire scene in a few days, a federal spokesman said Wednesday.
Earl Woodham, a public information officer team leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, said the investigation since last Friday’s fire, in which two firefighters died, has gone smoothly thanks in large part to the city of Salisbury’s cooperation from the start.
Salisbury officials have done well in keeping citizens informed as much as possible, Woodham said.
While the media has constantly looked for more information on the fire itself, Woodham noted, it’s not because the city is holding back.
“They just can’t give it to you,” he said.
The investigation has brought in an ATF National Response Team and field personnel, SBI agents and local officers to process the fire scene, conduct scores of interviews, track down photographs and video, research records and the like.
Woodham said it’s the ATF’s job to funnel information to the highest stakeholder, which is the city. The last thing the ATF wanted to do, he stressed, was make it seem like it was “Big Brother” taking over.
The ATF National Response Team has a service to provide ó specifically, to find where the $2 million fire started and what caused it ó and its job will be done.
But it’s also important for the federal, state and local agencies to be conducting the investigation and not the Salisbury Fire Department, Woodham said.
“They have a lot more on their minds than getting back into a fire scene and finding out what caused it,” Woodham said. “We can investigate it while the city starts the healing process.”
When Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell formally asked for the ATF’s assistance last Friday, the Charlotte office then put in a request for the National Response Team, which also investigated the Charleston, S.C., fire last June that killed nine firefighters.
Woodham said the Charlotte office wanted the National Response Team because of the large geometry (80,000 square feet) of the Salisbury Millwork operation and the scope of the deaths and injuries involved.
The National Response Team supervisor for the Salisbury fire came in from Louisville, Ky. Other members have driven here or flown in from Eastern Seaboard states.
The country has four different ATF National Response Teams.
A team is usually comprised of 18 people, including forensic chemists, fire protection engineers, architects, auditors, explosion experts and computer and mapping specialists.
Two ATF-trained canines, specializing in accelerant detection, have been on the scene. While trained by the ATF, the dogs belong to other agencies, Woodham said.
A scientist from the ATF Fire Research Laboratory in Ammendale, Md., also has been in Salisbury. A safety officer made sure the site was safe before agents went into the fire scene “partially on Sunday,” Woodham said.
On any fire scene, things such as roofs, floors and walls have to be judged safe or be stabilized or torn down before an investigation begins.
“You don’t want it any more tragic,” Woodham said.
The ATF initially had about 35 people in Salisbury. At Saturday’s first two-hour briefing for investigators, some 50-plus people were involved from all agencies, Woodham said.
The number of agents working a case decreases as various leads are researched and answered.
The investigation has included interviews of all first-responders, all Salisbury Millwork employees and “spinoffs” resulting from those interviews. Officers conducting interviews have had to go as far as South Carolina to track some people down, Woodham said.
Most of the interviews are complete, he added.
Woodham said the Salisbury fire scene is what ATF agents confront all the time ó twisted metal, water and mud and possibly dangerous buildings.
“Everything they see initially is in bad shape,” Woodham said. “This is what we find every time we come out.”
The trouble with fire sites is that the power, gas and other things can’t be turned back on. The best on-scene window for investigators is from sunup to sundown.
The ATF and SBI resources in the investigation are not costing the city anything.
Every fire investigation of this sort starts out as a criminal investigation, whether it involves a crime or not, Woodham said. So investigators have to treat the scene as a crime scene until it’s determined to be something else.
It simply ensures the integrity of the site, Woodham said.
People should not automatically assume that because the ATF is investigating that the fire involved an explosion, Woodham also cautioned.
While preliminary findings could be close at hand, a final report on the fire will take much longer. Each agency involved submits its findings. A final report from the Charleston fire has yet to be released, Woodham noted.
Regulatory investigations, such as what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will conduct, also take a long time, he said.
Woodham emphasized again that the ATF team is there only to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
The investigation has reached a point now, Woodham said, where there’s nothing to report on a daily basis or there’s “nothing to report that’s releasable yet.”
Salisbury city offices will remain open today during the 2 p.m. funeral service for the firefighters, though many could be short-staffed.
Catawba College, where the funeral will be held, also has decided to conduct business as usual, though some faculty members and their students have decided to cancel their classes this afternoon.
College spokesperson Tonia Black-Gold said the college has asked students not to attend the funeral unless they knew the fallen firefighters, because so many fellow firefighters and family members want to attend.
Students who want to honor the firemen have been encouraged to line up on the sidewalks to pay their respect.
Campus-wide notices also have been circulated to inform students, faculty and administrators when roads will close, where they should park and what streets they could use to avoid the funeral traffic.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or