Workers who went into the burned-out building at Front and Seward streets Tuesday were told to leave because state officials are still waiting to determine if there is asbestos in the structure.
John Stallone, chief of enforcement for Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, said from Anchorage he believes there was a misunderstanding.
"That's what it sounds like at this point," he said.
Stallone said work can't be done in the building until questions about the possible presence of asbestos in the 108-year-old building are answered.
The building, which housed 17 businesses and artists' studios, burned Aug. 15. The initial investigation determined the fire was ignited by two men doing tarring work with a weed-burner atop the first floor overhang. Although firefighters prevented it from spreading, the blaze poured smoke into downtown.
Juneau Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge noted the color differences in the smoke, from black to gray to white and even yellow. He said the color is determined by temperature of the fire and what is being burned.
While smoke from a burning building is generally poisonous, he said there were no indications that the smoke from the downtown blaze was any more toxic than usual.
Etheridge said he doesn't know much about asbestos, but, hypothetically, if a certain type were in the building, the fibers could have been carried off in the heat of the smoke.
Studies have shown that exposure to asbestos can lead to lung cancer and a respiratory disease known as asbestosis.
Stallone said he is still waiting for an assessment from contractors hired by the owner, Tom Huntington.
Typically such an assessment takes a week to 10 days to complete, Stallone said, adding that samples were taken last week.
Huntington faxed a letter to city officials last week, stating that he intends to demolish the building when governmental authorities allow him to do so.
Juneau City Manager Rod Swope said that because Huntington received a demolition permit the day after the fire, the work can begin as soon as the state allows.
Etheridge said a more detailed investigation into the blaze could be complete by the end of next week. On Tuesday, he said he had located the two men working on the building the day of the fire and was looking to interview them today.
Etheridge said he is not looking at them as criminal suspects.
"We're just trying to document things," he said.
Tony Carroll can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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