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1912 Building Fire Still Undetermined

July 23, 2008

By Ben Wolfgang, Republican & Herald, Pottsville, Pa.

Jul. 23–Although they won’t return to the scene, fire investigators continue to search for the cause of the July 12 fire at the county’s 1912 Building, Schuylkill Haven.

County officials said Tuesday they had been interviewed by state police Fire Marshal Michael Kowalick over the past several days, but details on the fire’s origin are scant.

State police at Reading said Kowalick was not in the office Tuesday, but would return today.

“He (Kowalick) felt he would close the investigation with phone interviews,” county Engineer Lisa Mahall said Tuesday. “That’s where we left it. He told me there was no evidence of anything accidental or anything criminal.”

The fire — which drew hundreds of firefighters and threatened residents of the nearby Rest Haven nursing home — was deemed “suspicious” by fire personnel at the scene, but county officials were skeptical of Kowalick’s report the fire began in the basement. Last week, Kowalick inspected the building for four hours, but he later said the cause would remain “undetermined.”

Kowalick’s word choice could leave more options for investigators, according to Ed Knight, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Arson Investigators, Lancaster.

“There are four food groups when it comes to fire: accidental, natural, intentional or undetermined,” Knight said in a phone interview Tuesday. “By calling it ‘undetermined,’ it leaves it (the investigation) open forever and ever.”

Knight, who has more than 25 years of experience as a firefighter and arson investigator in Lancaster, said arson is sometimes viewed as less serious than other felonies such as murder or rape, for example.

When suspicion surrounds a fire, he said, it’s becoming more common for it to remain listed as “undetermined,” so an investigation could resume years later if new information comes to light.

Knight also questioned the speed with which Kowalick conducted post-fire interviews.

Bruce Krokus, a Tamaqua independent contractor, was contracted by Schuylkill County last year to remove any “valueless” items from the building and sell them to scrap dealers or other buyers. That effort continued until July 12, when several of Krokus’ men were inside the building an hour before the blaze was first reported by Orwigsburg EMS.

One man, Tony Prudenti, New Ringgold, said nothing seemed suspicious or out of the ordinary that day, but said last week he had not been contacted by Kowalick or any other investigators.

Mahall said Tuesday she believed Prudenti had spoken with Kowalick, but was unsure when.

As of last week, Prudenti said he had not been contacted by Kowalick.

“I’m really surprised,” Knight said. “I would have talked to them (contractors who worked in the building) first.”

Prudenti could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mahall said county officials are under the impression Kowalick will not be returning to the 1912 Building and would continue the investigation using phone interviews and more than 100 pictures taken during the visit last week.

Kowalick has said the fire appears to have started in the basement and made its way up a stairwell, explaining the lack of fire damage to walls on lower floors while the roof was heavily damaged.

Last week, several doors boarded up after the fire were open. Mahall said it appeared someone had “busted” into the building once again.

A piece of wood used to board up a window after the fire had the words “I’m watching you” written on it.

The 1912 Building is set for demolition after being sold to the Penn State Schuylkill Advisory Board in April for more than $655,000.

The board has said it plans to raze the building.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Republican & Herald, Pottsville, Pa.

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