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The 62-Story Question: Why? : Top Investigator Is Not Optimistic About Pinpointing Cause of Blaze

Times Staff Writer

As their grimy subordinates sifted piles of wet muck high up in the First Interstate Bank building on Friday, two neatly dressed executives waited at a command post on Hope Street for clues to the origin of the fire that gutted five floors of Los Angeles’ tallest building.

“We may never know what happened,” said Battalion Chief Gary R. Bowie, head of the Fire Department’s arson investigation unit.

Despite the expertise of eight city investigators and 24 agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the extreme heat and long life of the blaze may have destroyed important evidence, he said.

“If we can come up with a cause, it would be a feather in our hat,” said Bowie, 45, who sported a battalion chief’s white fire hat with his civilian shirt and tie.

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Investigators for both agencies share more or less the same expertise, but the 12-man federal response team--summoned from cities across the West--was called in because of the sheer size of the blaze. Another dozen Los Angeles-based agents who routinely work with city arson investigators on major fires affecting interstate commerce were also assigned to the fire.

Ron Wolters, head of the federal team, wore a hard hat and crisp blue overalls with the agency initials ATF on the back and National Response Team stitched on the chest.

“We have pretty much the same resources, but when we combine we can double our output,” Wolters said. “We only come in when we’re invited. The LAFD invited us to come in and support their resources with ours. It’s going to take quite a lot of resources.”

Two scientists from the National Bureau of Standards were assigned in Washington to provide chemical analysis and other technical assistance, he said.

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The arson investigators have marked off 2,400 square feet at the southeast corner of the building’s 12th floor, where indications are that the conflagration began, Bowie said.

Setting up a grid system to record the location of every item, they have begun the tedious search for scraps of evidence that might help understand how the fire began, be it anything from an arsonist’s can of gasoline to evidence of short-circuited wiring.

“It might be destroyed and it might not be,” Bowie said. “That’s what we’re looking for. It could take us two to three days and it could take as long as a week.”

They are also charting fire trails, burn patterns and the degree of charring to pinpoint the starting point, and interviewing dozens of witnesses in an effort to determine if it might have been set on purpose.

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Bowie, a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department, has never actually worked as an arson investigator.

As a young fireman, the Vallejo native helped fight several major blazes at oil refineries in the San Pedro area, then commanded fire companies and served as a battalion chief in the San Fernando Valley before being named to head the 16-person arson investigation bureau last year.

His investigators, all of them firefighters who volunteered for the detective-like work of the arson bureau, have been trained by Los Angeles Police Department investigators and at courses sponsored by the National Fire Academy and by the state fire marshal.

Wolters, 41, said that he, too, works largely in a managerial capacity. Previously based in Washington as special agent in charge of arson enforcement, he moved to San Francisco in 1985 as assistant special agent in charge of arson investigations for 12 Western states.

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While his national response team is made up of specialists in determining the cause and origins of fires, Wolters never actually specialized as an arson investigator. While based in Texas in the early 1970s, he helped arrest smugglers who stole machine guns and traded them in Mexico for narcotics.

Part of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has lost more than 200 officers in the line of duty, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Most of them were killed during the Prohibition Era, although two special agents were killed during a drug bust in Florida in 1984.

“Remember the movie ‘The Untouchables?’ ” Wolters asked. “We evolved from that agency. We still bust up moonshiners, but that’s a lower priority than explosives or firearms violations these days.”

Modern-day T-men added arson investigation to their tasks in 1979. “It’s a science,” Wolters said. “It’s not something they do with Tarot cards.”

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