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Cause of deadly Lake St. fire 'undetermined'

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER and RANDY FURST
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • May 6, 2010 - 12:28 PM

The fast-moving fire that killed six people in a Minneapolis apartment on April 2 was an accident, not a criminal act, but local and state fire investigators couldn't determine how it started.

The official cause of "undetermined" in the city's deadliest fire in a quarter century came Tuesday after weeks of investigation of the gutted apartments at 3001 E. Lake St. and laboratory analysis of evidence. Minneapolis police said little else about what investigators learned, but they said the finding marks the end of the active government probe.

Still, private investigators hired by attorneys will continue the inquiry and may ultimately reveal how a fire flared up in a corner apartment and killed the tenant and five guests. Fire investigation experts say it's typical for investigators working for insurance companies, victims and other private parties to take over after suspicious causes are ruled out.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer said that no accelerants -- one indicator of arson -- were found in the area where the fire started. Last month, the fire department said the fire broke out in the second-floor apartment of Ryan Richner, a bartender who worked in McMahon's Irish Pub on the first floor.

Also killed were Andrew Gervais, his three children and his mother, Anne Gervais; all were staying overnight in Richner's apartment.

Denise Schmidt of Long Prairie, Richner's mother, was deeply disappointed with the failure to determine a cause.

"I need a reason or something to focus my anger," Schmidt said. "Why did it happen? Why did my son die? Why is the Gervais family gone? It would be nice to have a reason." Her son's funeral was Friday.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner found that Anne Gervais died of smoke inhalation and the others died from smoke inhalation and burns. The building owner and families of the deceased all retained lawyers as part of the private investigation.

"Once you've got six dead people, and police stop investigating, that's when the money starts to get spent," said John Lentini, a Florida consultant who has investigated 2,000 fires and written a fire investigation handbook.

In 2007, 43 percent of fatal fires nationwide were blamed on "undetermined" causes, and experts say that reflects a lack of living witnesses and the destruction of evidence. But it also reflects the limited scope of most investigations by local fire departments.

State law requires fire chiefs to investigate the "cause, origin and circumstances" of fires that causes at least $100 in damage or any fire of "unknown origin." The law adds that chiefs "shall especially make investigation as to whether the fire was the result of carelessness, accident, or design." In practice, government investigators focus on gathering evidence for arson.

Denise DeMars, Minnesota's deputy state fire marshal, said in an interview last month that for accidental blazes, government investigators don't have the resources to hire all the experts and run all the scientific tests. In such cases, it's more likely that private investigators would determine if a smoke detector wasn't working or bad wiring sparked the blaze, she said.

"They are able to hire forensic electrical engineers or experts in appliances," DeMars said. "They take microscopic examinations of metals ... to see if there was a failure. They hire people who specialize in fuel gases. "

The legal principle at play is called subrogation, in which an insurance company pays the owner or victim, then sues someone else, say, the maker of a smoke detector or appliance. Lentini said an owner's insurance company "has a huge incentive to find the cause."

The apartments above McMahon's hadn't had a fire safety inspection in 16 years, and surviving tenants said an inspector would have found many fire code violations. Last month, the State Fire Marshal said Minneapolis should step up its fire inspections from every five to every three years. Later this month the City Council is expected to examine its inspection policies in light of the April 2 fire.

james.shiffer@startribune.com 612-673-4271

rfurst@startribune.com • 612-673-7382

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