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State Agency Says City Of Seattle Withholding Records Of Fire Probe

Thu., Feb. 16, 1995

City officials are withholding some records from state investigators looking into the possibility that safety rules were violated in the battle against a warehouse fire that killed four firefighters, Department of Labor and Industries officials say.

“I don’t think our investigation is any less important than anything else that is going on as a result of this fire,” Labor and Industries spokeswoman Suzanne Taylor told The Seattle Times, which reported on the stalemate Wednesday.

The records “are vital for our investigation,” she said.

The firefighters died when a floor collapsed shortly after their arrival at the fire scene Jan. 5. The fire was deliberately set.

Labor and Industries is required to investigate workplace fatalities.

Assistant City Attorney Helaine Honig said the state may have to sue for access to the records, which are being withheld because of an ongoing criminal investigation to determine who set the fire.

“We are taking our directions from the police,” Honig said.

Among the records sought are tape recordings of radio conversations among firefighters and training records that include backgrounds of those involved in battling the fire at the Mary Pang Food Products warehouse.

“I don’t know what the relationship would be between the homicide investigation and the training of the firefighters,” Taylor said.

“We’ve done a lot of interviews with (fire department) staff and that is going fine, but we are getting to the point where we need that information. We have to combine it with other details of the investigation to get a full picture.”

Despite the problems, Labor and Industries Director Mark Brown said investigators have made progress and may finish the probe by mid-March.

Some agency officials believe the stonewalling is prompted by lingering hard feelings from the state’s investigation of the 1989 Blackstock Lumber Co. fire.

Fire Department spokeswoman Georgia Taylor refused to speculate on that possibility.

“It is our department’s policy that when there is an investigation going on that we don’t discuss it until it is all over,” she said.

“At any fire, when something tragic happens, there is always afterwards the second-guessing. If it is used to improve what we are doing, that is good.”

The state agency cited the department for fire-safety violations in the 1989 blaze, an unsolved arson in which one firefighter died. The agency fined the city $102,400 for worker-safety violations and criticized it for losing track of firefighters in burning buildings.

The city appealed and paid a negotiated settlement of $15,000. In addition, a full-time safety officer was assigned and a better system for tracking firefighters installed.

The probe was used to support civil claims for damages by the widow and son of Lt. Matthew Johnson, the firefighter who died, and by injured firefighter William Meredith.

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