By Lea Skene | Associated Press
BALTIMORE — Several hours after firefighters extinguished a warehouse fire in southwest Baltimore early Sunday, the scene was eerily quiet as Donte Craig stepped through the charred rubble, trying to remain hopeful.
He was looking for his older brother James Craig Jr., who leased the warehouse for his demolition and hauling business. After hearing about the fire, which was reported around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, family members grew increasingly concerned throughout the night because James Craig Jr. wasn’t answering calls or texts.
Finally, his brother drove to the scene late Sunday morning.
Inside the building, he found the body of his 45-year-old brother on the second floor. Baltimore Police have launched a homicide investigation.
As the investigation unfolds, family members are demanding answers. They want to know how firefighters initially failed to realize the building was occupied.
Their questions add to growing controversy surrounding the Baltimore Fire Department and its policies, which came under scrutiny after three firefighters died responding to a call early this year. The chief resigned last week in response to an investigative report that found numerous deficiencies.
In response to questions about the warehouse fire, officials said they had no reason to believe anyone was inside the two-story commercial building. They also said the building was ultimately deemed structurally unsafe for firefighters to enter.
But the Craig family said there were signs of occupancy, including about a half-dozen dogs spending the night in an adjacent enclosure. First responders had the dogs taken to an animal shelter, according to family members.
James Craig Jr. used the first floor of the warehouse as a workshop, but he also had a bedroom upstairs where he sometimes stayed after working late. He collapsed near the top of the stairs, according to his brother.
“He was trying to get out,” Donte Craig said in an interview at the scene Tuesday afternoon.
He pointed to the staircase leading to the second floor. While parts of the building were severely damaged from the flames — including sections of the walls and floorboards that were reduced to charcoal and ash — the metal staircase remained intact.
Donte Craig said he easily walked up the stairs Sunday morning and spotted his brother’s body before reaching the top. He questioned why firefighters didn’t make a similar effort.
“They’ve got a lot to answer for,” said father James Craig Sr. “Why couldn’t they walk up one flight of steps? Maybe my son could still be alive.”
The criticism comes amid existing turmoil for the Baltimore Fire Department. Chief Niles Ford, who had led the department since 2014, resigned last week after an investigative report found numerous deficiencies. The report examined the department’s response to a southwest Baltimore rowhouse fire that left three firefighters dead.
Among the investigative findings: There was no program to notify firefighters about vacant and unsafe homes or standard procedures for battling fires and coordinating EMS responses at vacant buildings. The report also cited a culture of competition among firefighters that may have led to increased risk-taking.
In that case, there were signs of a previous fire and structural instability, but firefighters entered the building anyway, officials have said.
Baltimore’s high concentration of vacant buildings present a unique danger to firefighters. A Baltimore Sun investigation showed vacant homes in Baltimore burn at twice the national rate, but gaps in record-keeping have limited what firefighters know before proceeding inside.
At the scene of the recent warehouse fire, firefighters initially entered the building and “performed interior operations to battle the fire,” department spokesperson Blair Adams said. But then the incident commander and safety officer discovered “some visual signs of structural instability” and ordered immediate evacuation. At that point, firefighters battled the fire from outside.
The fire was placed under control around 1 a.m. Sunday, officials said.
“There was no reason to believe anyone was inside,” Adams said in a text message Tuesday.
She said firefighters responded to the scene again on Sunday after the body was discovered. Baltimore Police homicide and arson units also responded. Officials said the cause is still under investigation.
James Craig Sr. said he’s not satisfied with the city’s response.
“I’m getting assumptions; I’m not getting any facts,” he said Tuesday afternoon during a phone conversation with a homicide detective assigned to the case. “You have to remember, the reality of this is that I lost my son. That’s the reality of the whole thing.”