Investigators will never know for sure what caused a spectacular fire that destroyed nearly half of the Redondo Beach Pier two months ago, but an electrical problem is suspected, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report by the Redondo Beach Fire Department also says a news helicopter flying too close to the blaze intensified the fire and made fighting it more difficult. But investigators said the damage probably would have been as extensive in any case.
Although the cause was not determined, the report says the fire was accidental. The May 27 blaze destroyed about 34,000 square feet of the horseshoe-shaped section of the pier, including 15 businesses, and caused $7 million damage to public and private property.
Two days after the fire, wind-swept waves battered the pier and washed away most of the what remained of the fire-ravaged structure, and with it much of the fire evidence.
“I don’t think we’ve ever done a fire investigation with scuba gear before,” Fire Battalion Chief Pat Aust said in an interview.
As for the electrical equipment suspected in the blaze, Aust said: “Nobody’s been able to pinpoint whose electrical equipment it was. We know it was under the Breakers restaurant.”
The report said an electrical panel beneath Breakers had been replaced after it was destroyed in a January storm. It also said that Kevin Fattal of Brookes Electric Co. in Hermosa Beach, which replaced the panel, told fire officials: “I’ve lost a couple nights’ sleep since you said you that it was electrical. I just don’t see how it could have been our stuff; it was all new and I inspected it myself several times . . . every inch.”
The helicopter pilot faulted in the report, Bob Tur of Los Angeles News Service, could not be reached for comment. He is the same pilot who rescued more than 50 people from an oceanfront hotel in Redondo Beach during the January storm.
“It is my opinion,” wrote Capt. Ronald C. Cody, “that the close hovering of the . . . news helicopter piloted by Bob Tur, increased the intensity of the fire and spread smoke and fire during a critical time. . . . Firefighters were forced to retreat due to the fire buildup as well as the helicopter noise severely hindering radio traffic.”
Aust said Tur ignored one radio warning to move away from the fire scene. He retreated after a second warning, when Aust threatened him with arrest.
But, Aust said: “I don’t think in any way that we would have saved another inch of the pier had he not been there. . . . We do feel that his proximity could have added to the spread (of the fire); it definitely added to the confusion and endangered our people. . . . For that reason, we have now gone to the FAA, and they feel he was wrong too.”
Federal Aviation Administration officials could not be reached for comment.
Redondo Beach police had been investigating Tur for allegedly ignoring a radio warning to move away from the burning pier, but no charges have been filed, according to Sgt. Michael Minard. He said he did not know the status of the investigation.
Five months before the fire, Tur used his helicopter to rescue more than 50 guests at the Portofino Inn who were stranded in a parking lot when a severe storm washed away an access road.
The FAA censured Tur 1 1/2 years ago for allegedly hovering above rescuers as they combed the wreckage of the jet crash that killed Dean Paul Martin. Tur denied that he flew close to the crash scene.
Tur also gained notoriety when he hovered over the outdoor wedding of rock star Madonna and actor Sean Penn.