ANCHORAGE - The cause of the fire that destroyed a hotel nearing completion in downtown Anchorage remains a mystery. And the Anchorage Fire Department is looking into whether firefighters may have disturbed the scene so much that investigators may never be able to determine what happened.
Deputy Fire Chief Dennis Hoke, who supervised the scene, has been placed on administrative leave, but officials declined to discuss the internal investigation.
The fire broke out about 2:30 a.m. April 9. The four-story building was due to open June 1. The loss of the $4.9 million building is the costliest fire loss in the city since 1979.
While firefighters had it contained within a couple of hours, the fire continued smoldering underneath a debris pile throughout the morning.
Jim Whitters, owner of Whitters Excavating, said hotel construction superintendent Bob Megee called him about 8 a.m. requesting a backhoe "right away" to tear down scaffolding that was close to collapsing. Whitters' son Jamey went to work at the direction of firefighters.
Jamey Whitters said as he moved the still-flaming debris, he was told to stop four or five times.
"They were trying to decide whether to proceed or not," he said.
Finally, Whitters was told by firefighters to leave.
"They said they were getting their butts chewed by the investigators for stirring it around and they were going to have to stop and wait," he said.
Carol Olson, deputy state fire marshal, said it's "always a tough call" for a fire scene commander to decide whether to aggressively extinguish the blaze with the possibility of contaminating evidence or let it burn out slowly.
"Generally, the fire is doing a lot of destruction anyway, and typically you would want to preserve the scene as best you can until the investigators get in there," she said.
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