Friday Dec 17 2010
Report: Maintenance worker shut off Galleria sprinklers
By: Lien Hoang, The Press Tribune
A Westfield maintenance worker who believed he was acting on police orders shut off sprinklers during the Galleria mall blaze, city officials said Friday. Did any emergency personnel give such orders? “Absolutely not,” said Capt. Stefan Moore, the Roseville police tactical commander during the Oct. 21 fire. The sprinklers remained off for 71 minutes – from 10:38 a.m. to 11:49 a.m. – when the “fire was allowed to continue to burn and grow unchecked,” Roseville fire marshall Dennis Mathisen said at a Friday press conference regarding the city’s after-action report, released that day. It marked the first time officials commented on the details of the incident response. Suspect Alexander Piggee ignited the fire at about 10:10 a.m., and sprinklers activated at 10:23 a.m., according to a timeline released by the City of Roseville. At 11:41 a.m., fire officials questioned the worker and discovered he had turned off sprinklers in the east wing of the mall, between Macy’s and J.C. Penney. A SWAT team then escorted the man to reopen the water valves, but by then, flames had spread above the ceiling and beyond the sprinklers. A UPS worker also overheard or believed that police wanted the sprinklers off, though his account was independent from and inconsistent with that of the mall employee, officials said. The men were trying to be “good Samaritans,” but “no sheriff deputies were present at that time and no police officer made such request,” the city’s report said. Authorities would not name witnesses because of the ongoing investigation. Police and fire considered turning off sprinklers between 1:11 p.m. and 1:25 p.m. to use a robot that had been deployed to deactivate the bomb. But they abandoned the idea because of excessive smoke and fire. “We contemplate many things with imperfect information,” Roseville fire chief Dean Grundy said. “It’s the nature of the beast for us.” He clarified that, unlike in the movies, the sprinkler system does not rush on all at once, but individual valves are set in motion based on sensors. It’s “possible” the fire wouldn’t have gone on to cause $55 million in damages if the system remained on, but “there’s no way of knowing,” Grundy said. In illustrating that the system functions well, Mathisen referenced two Galleria fires in the past, when sprinklers stamped out the flames early. During the hour-long press conference, authorities said that after entering the mall GameStop, Piggee lifted a backpack so that the store clerk would smell the kerosene. The odor of chemicals, along with the suspect’s alleged threats of having a bomb and gun, delayed an arrest and complete extinguishing of the fire, they said. He was also carrying a rolling suitcase. Piggee initially barricaded himself inside GameStop’s storage room, but eventually climbed into the overhead crawl space between 10:40 a.m. and 10:49 a.m., the report said. He seemed to try to break through the walls between 11:07 a.m. and 11:19 a.m., but was arrested at 12:11 p.m. as he emerged from a back hallway. Two firefighters reported minor injuries. Grundy said firefighters on scene totaled five times the number in the Roseville department, while police said hundreds of area officers responded. The fire chief added that because of the governor’s emergency declaration, the state will cover 70 percent of all costs to fight and recover from Oct. 21. The city had planned to release its after action report last week, but stalled at the prospect of a gag order requested by the District Attorney’s office. Placer County judge Larry Gaddis denied a gag Wednesday. “We have to go with what the court rules,” city spokeswoman Megan MacPherson said. Lien Hoang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.