Investigators let go of arson case in one of city's biggest blazes
When the five-story Kearney Plaza apartment house Ñ almost three-quarters complete Ñ collapsed into a burning pile of wood, brick, glass and steel three years ago, it became one of the city's largest and most expensive fires.
And when fire officials suspended their 3-year-old arson investigation recently, it became one of the city's 'ultimate puzzles.'
'It's like reading a book and the last three pages are gone,' said chief investigator Lt. Rich Stenhouse. 'It's absolutely frustrating.'
The Kearney Plaza fire did $10 million in damage to the apartment house on Aug. 19, 1999. It took the developer, Hoyt Street Properties, a year to rebuild the 139-unit project.
As a result of the fire, security at Pearl District construction sites increased, concrete construction largely replaced wood in loft housing, and the Portland Fire Bureau introduced a new policy to have sprinklers working early in construction.
'It was a tragic time, but we went ahead and rebuilt,' said Tiffany Sweitzer, executive director of Hoyt Street Properties. 'We started clearing the site almost the next day.'
Stenhouse said investigators suspended the arson inquiry because the search for a key witness has grown cold. Investigators have no new clues, he said, in the search for David Otis Litchford, 40, who was spotted near the Northwest 12th Avenue building hours before the fire started.
No other witnesses have come forward.
'This is the ultimate puzzle or whodunit,' Deputy Fire Chief Greg Keller said last week. 'It's got all the elements of people and motive. We know the fire occurred, but who did it?'
The only fire approaching the size and cost of the Kearney Plaza blaze was the 1985 four-alarm arson fire that gutted the Van Duyn candy plant at 739 N.E. Broadway. No one was charged in that case, although evidence showed the fire was set professionally in three areas of the plant.
Investigators didn't want the Kearney case to hit the same roadblocks.
Authorities say Litchford and another man, Robert Qualls, 39, were seen taking a ladder from the nearby Tanner Place Apartments at 1030 N.W. Johnson St. the night of the fire. Investigators interviewed Qualls, who admitted to taking the ladder but denied setting the fire.
Litchford, who resurfaced in San Francisco last year when police took him to a San Francisco hospital for medical attention, has not been found since.
'It would be nice to talk to him,' Keller said. 'Two people we know were in the area at that hour. I do not believe he necessarily lit the match, but he could have seen something.'
Flames in the Kearney Plaza building were first spotted by neighbor Steve Deaton, who awoke at 4 a.m. in his apartment at 820 N.W. 12th Ave.
He yelled at his girlfriend to call the fire department, according to fire reports. Photos taken by Deaton show the building engulfed in flames.
Betty Fell, watching from across the street on Northwest 11th Avenue, recalled her living room being lit bright red by the flames.
'We had some glass crack, and were only 50 feet away,' she said. 'We watched for a while and walked the streets. When we came back our door had been kicked open so firefighters could see that there was nothing flammable on our deck.'
The Kearney Plaza building collapsed 'in a clockwise manner, section by section, over the next 45 to 60 minutes,' wrote investigator Gary Farland.
The bureau's Engine 3 and Truck 3 were damaged when up to 1,800 degrees of radiant heat melted their protective lens covers and light bars. Almost 200 windows in the Eoff Electric Co. building and the year-old Riverstone Condominiums Ñ just 40 feet away Ñ bubbled and broke from the intense heat.
A haze of smoke hung over the city for the next day.
'It was a weird night,' Sweitzer said. 'It was so different then. There were no streets, no buildings around. The Lovejoy ramp was coming down, and I stood on it and watched the fire. I wondered if someone angry down below had set the fire because it was planned out.'
The fire took three days to extinguish.
Fire got a head start
Fire investigators spent 13 days digging through burned rubble and quickly determined the fire was set on the second floor in the southwest corner of the building, Stenhouse said. The area sufferred the most fire damage and was the first to collapse.
Early on, criticism focused on the quality of construction materials that Hoyt Street Properties used. Stenhouse said the building burned quickly because the upper floors had sheet rock and lightweight materials.
'You've got unprotected wood subjected to fire,' he said. 'By the time it was seen and reported, the fire had a real head start.'
Today's building industry uses more lightweight materials, rather than large beams, that can better withstand fire.
'It's sound structurally, but until fire protection is in place and the building is complete, lightweight construction is a hazard,' Stenhouse said.
There were no obvious signs of gas or other accelerants used to trigger the fire. And, because it was under construction, the Kearney Plaza building had no permanent utilities or sprinklers in place. Sweitzer said the builders were within two days of installing sprinklers when the fire began.
There was no evidence of vandalism; no one had recently been fired by the construction or development crews, Stenhouse said. A video surveillance system, stationed on the building to show construction progress, had malfunctioned the week before.
'You'd be surprised by the number of people who say they have a camera, but there's not film, or it's malfunctioning,' he said. 'That's true of all crimes. It's hit and miss.'
The fire department and the building's two insurers dangled a $10,000 reward and posted signs in nearby apartments, restaurants and soup kitchens. Stenhouse is not sure how many calls he received as a result.
Investigators for the two insurance companies cleared the developers Ñ Homer Williams, Joseph Weston and Hoyt Street Properties Ñ of involvement before clearing the settlement.
'There was no motivation for this fire,' Stenhouse said. 'It cost them time to clean up the site. Some units had been presold. It wasn't like they dumped a lot of money in the area and they (apartments) were sitting vacant.'
Williams said the apartments had filled up in four to five months.
'They told us early on they
didn't think they'd find somebody,' he said. 'It's really hard in cases like that. The fire department did everything they could.'
Nor was there any indication that it was arson for hire, Stenhouse said. There was, however, resentment against new homeowners in the Pearl District and the dismantling that year of the Lovejoy ramp, which connected the Northwest Portland neighborhood to the Broadway Bridge. A number of homeless people had found shelter under the ramp.
A Kenneth Patchen poem about village fire, found on one of the ramp's columns, had TV crews whispering of motive.
Stenhouse said the graffiti had been written years earlier. He also discounted the significance of a cardboard box tied to the fence bearing red ribbons and the words: 'Revenge. You'll never catch me!'
So far, that's true.