Fire Investigators Piece the Puzzle as Restoration Moves Forward

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COLUMBIA - Under the midday sun, an operator in a skid-steer construction machine plows through rock with a hydraulic hammer, layering staccato thuds atop the hum of traffic. Construction and restoration plans move forward at Brookside on College while fire investigators continue searching for clues from a blaze that caused nearly $7 million in damages.

In 2010 and 2011, 723 fires caused nearly $8 million in total damages, but the two largest fires this year - at Brookside apartments and Business Loop 70 - top that number by almost $2 million. Columbia Fire Chief Steven Sapp said because of the severity of the damage at Business Loop 70, the case has gone undetermined.

"The destruction was so great, we were able to determine our area of origin, roughly, but were never able to pinpoint a cause of that fire. And we weren't able to rule out the unintentional causes of that fire," Sapp said. "We know that sometimes thats not only frustrating for the general public but it's also frustrating for the investigators."

Sapp and other fire investigators employ a number of tools to determine the causes of fires, most notably scientific theory and photographic evidence, but the difficulty lies in connecting the dots from the remaining evidence.

"It's a little bit like being handed a bunch puzzle pieces, and working through the physical evidence you find to put those pieces back," Sapp said. "The problem is that in a fire, many of those pieces are gone and they're not coming back. You may be left with a gap big enough so that once those pieces are in place, you really can't make out the picture."

Although investigations can last indefinitely, that picture is one Sapp says is worth developing. He references previous court cases that were were based off poor investigative practices. In those cases, innocent people were prosecuted and sometimes even sentenced to death.

Now, with more stringent investigation standards, fire officials make sure that their determinations are foolproof; if intentional causes can't be ruled out, the fire is categorized as undetermined.

The Columbia Fire Department asks that if anyone has any information about the Brookside on College fire, to contact local authorities.