Postscript : Mystery of Fire Remains Unsolved

After months of investigation by federal and local fire officials, the trail of clues has run out in the spectacular, $8-million fire that destroyed The Landing, a luxury condominium complex that was under construction when it burned to the ground a year ago last week.

Today, rebuilding of the first phase of the $88-million, 196-unit project "has just about reached the point where we were when the fire hit last year," said Mickie Riley, vice president of Watt Industries San Diego, developer of the condominiums. The project sits on 7.5 acres of waterfront land where the Coronado Ferry Landing once stood.

The fire, described as among the worst in the history of San Diego County, broke out shortly after dark on Nov. 8, 1984, and raced through the sprawling wood-frame construction site. Flames leaped more than 150 feet into the air, and could be seen from miles away.

The Landing is only six blocks from the main station of the Coronado Fire Department, and firefighters were on the scene less than two minutes after the blaze broke out, but the unfinished buildings were destroyed. More than 40 firefighting units, including many from the City of San Diego, were summoned to battle the blaze.

Arson was immediately suspected, but clues were virtually non-existent when the Coronado Fire Department and arson investigators from the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau began examining the rubble the following morning. "The feds offered their assistance because of the size of the fire," said Coronado Fire Chief Bob Shanahan.

"They sent a team down right off the bat, and while we couldn't find any hard evidence of arson, we eliminated all other possibilities, and now the assumption is that it had to be arson," said Shanahan. "In addition to our crews, there were 15 federal agents working on this, and their investigation lasted several months."

Shanahan said the federal agents "followed up every possible lead--witnesses in the area before, during and after the fire, people who were on boats nearby, neighbors, people driving cars seen in the area, background checks on their (the developer's) insurance--it went on and on. And we actively pursued the case for six more months after they finished. But the longer we went, the more the leads diminished. I'd be surprised if there were any new breaks in the case."

In April, the San Diego County Crimestoppers program went on local television news shows to offer a $2,000 reward for information leading to a solution to the mystery of the fire's origin. But no new leads resulted.

Reconstruction of the lavish condominium project began later that month, Watt Industries spokeswoman Robin Maydeck said. "There were no major changes in the design," Maydeck said, "but it took several months for the investigations to be completed and to clean up the area before we could start rebuilding."

Riley said 30 of the 34 people who had made deposits to buy units in The Landing's first phase before the fire did not change their plans. "We felt very fortunate that more people didn't pull out," he said. The 92 first-phase units, priced from about $275,000 to $600,000, should be completed late next year.

Security at the site has been beefed up significantly since reconstruction began, said Cmdr. Robert Hutton of the Coronado Police Department. A private security guard is on duty around the clock, and the site is lighted at night. In addition, the Fire Department convinced Watt Industries to make its sprinkler system operational during construction.

"We've had very few suspicious incidents down there since the rebuilding started, but we watch it really closely," Hutton said. "We investigate right away if there are suspicious people prowling around there."

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