The Annapolis Mansion Fire, Investigating, and of course, The Haters

Photo: Glenn Miller, AP

Photo: Glenn Miller, AP

As you are well aware, there was an extraordinarily tragic fire this week in Annapolis, MD* where it appears six people- two grandparents and four of their grandchildren- may have died in the blaze.  This incident has also gotten a significant amount of media attention, from CNN; CBS via WUSA; and any number of other conventional media outlets. Understandably, there are the questions: “Why so much emphasis on this fire?” “If this were a middle class family would they have this much attention?” and on and on.

Thankfully, someone at Anne Arundel 1st Alert wrote an excellent Facebook article that tried to explain some of the investigative issues. But of course, since social media makes everyone an expert, logic and reason are never sufficient. As The Haters began chiming in, some of the comments were not surprisingly, pretty callous. This is not going to be an easy scene to process, between the size, the complexity, and the fact that there are presumably lost souls in the debris.  At this moment, five have been found and there is a sixth missing.  But for individuals to speculate that the investigation is more than just an investigation at this time, frankly, is pretty presumptuous. It would really be nice if The Haters considered for a few moments that instead of trying to be the first to make a snarky comment about how “suspicious” the event is, they considered the feelings of families, friends, and neighbors that are trying to deal with this disaster first.

As far as how this investigation is progressing, I’m going to tell you, I’m not an investigator.  Between my 35 years in the fire service and having a father and brother who are certified fire and explosion investigators, I can develop more intuitive conclusions than many investigators out there, but I would never stand up in court as a expert in determining cause and origin.  But as a fire chief, I can tell you, this is not a “routine” incident.  So from that aspect, I’ll share a little something unclassified with you: fire investigation is really hard, really dirty, really painstaking, really challenging, really thankless work.   Too many TV shows glorify investigative work as a whole as being glamorous and chic.

Consider the “CSI Effect” on crime scene forensics; I’ll let you know someday when they turn up the DNA report on evidence from the break-in that occurred at my home more than eight years ago.  Let’s say I’m not holding my breath.  It’s just not there, and investigators often have to deal more with getting administrative warrants, filling our evidence logs, taking notes, sifting through garbage and shit (literally), and any other number of distasteful and annoying duties to get to the facts.  These folks are going to be dealing with this for weeks, not days, and putting in exhausting hours way beyond their normal exhausting hours, so in addition to not sleeping well and answering stupid questions from the unknowing and unenlightened, my anticipation is that they will be a little on-edge.  I would recommend support right now rather than judgement, and please permit them to do what they do best.

For perspective’s sake, we happened to have a multi-alarm commercial fire in my own community a few nights after this one. I watched the investigators remove a huge piece of roof in order to get to what appeared to be the area of origin and thought: “You know, it would be much easier if we had a crane to remove that.” And I watched our four or five investigators take all morning to sift painstakingly through an area about the size of a bedroom to get to a potential cause and thought, fortunately, they were able to narrow this down to a very specific area of this building because the way the building burned (ordinary construction) pretty much pointed us to the spot.  AND even then, with everything we had at our disposal, it was impossible to pin it down to much else other than a generator right there in that spot.  AND fortunately, nobody died, or was even hurt in the fire, so we didn’t have that kind of complication at hand.

So consider the alternative. The house on Childs Point is enormous: 16,000 square feet. The fire was described by first arriving units as being substantially throughout this 16,000 square foot building.  There was not a decent water supply, so fire was able to progress unchecked as they had to shuttle water in.  The fire load was also significant, as was the building construction. Built to resemble a castle, there was a lot of heavy timber and steel involved. The roofs were slate, so not only do you have the weight of a “stone” roof, but the structural support that has to be there to support that load is immense. Just removing the tin roof and joists from from our commercial fire was a huge effort. think about removing the slate and heavy structural supports from a castle.  Yes, this isn’t a normal fire in your basic single-family frame dwelling.

For those who can’t understand why ATF is there, understand that proximity to an urban center (and also the capital region) provides assets not all of the rest of the nation has “immediately” available. In SC, instead of getting ATF, we would have called our State Law Enforcement Division to help, and we have before. We have partnered with other departments within our county for assistance, and we have a lot of very qualified individuals, but just processing the evidence involved in ONE death is a significant amount of work.  If we had six deaths in a huge, unconventionally constructed home that had gone to ground, I don’t even know who we would be able to call (except for ATF) to help.  Not to mention, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department already has individuals who work with ATF’s team; therefore, a very natural response is to reach out to those you already work with on a regular basis.

As far as media attention, the fact that the individuals involved were socially popular, generous, loving, and unique, yes, contribute to the story’s newsworthiness. The fact that four children were involved, yes, make it newsworthy (regardless of race or class).  But we in the fire service have absolutely no control over what is considered newsworthy, unless, of course, we screw up.  The media always seems to find that newsworthy.  But what we see as newsworthy often never sees the light of day.  And again, as far as this fire, the fact that The Haters happen to be engaging with the article to argue its newsworthiness, is evidence that yes, this is newsworthy.

Honestly, instead of casting foundless aspersions on motive and intent and conspiracy, maybe what people should really be doing is allowing the investigative team to do their job unencumbered by your idiotic speculations, supporting those families who have lost their loved ones, and supporting a community that is not only reeling from the loss but having to consider how to keep a tragedy like this from happening again. As far as The Haters, as always, we all just wish you’d shut up and crawl back under your rocks.

*Note: For journalistic integrity, I’m disclosing that my brother is one of many investigators and firefighters working on this incident.  Any information in regard to the difficulty in dealing with the debris and building construction was already published by other sources, and the observations on the response of certain assets is simply an observation from first hand knowledge of how these assets are deployed.



  • Frank S. Brewer Jr. says:

    Well put Mick. After 44 years in Fire/Rescue/EMS I am always amazed at the civilians telling me how it should be done. Fire investigation is hard work and never rewarding, having worked for a private fire investigator, who died due to exposure to the scene environments, the satisfaction you get is finding cause after that hard and gross work to find the answer.

  • Dee says:

    Well said. The general public has no idea of all the hard work involved. What a difficult task this has to have been for all involved. Prayers for all, especially the family.

  • Barbara Lander Burger says:

    You know sometimes asking questions is a good thing. Sometimes wrong is committed and people try to cover it up. Thank Heaven for the skeptics, the questioners. As sad as the situation is, it would be worse if someone has done something terrible and then gets away with it. Since when is it a problem if people ask questions. The only one who should have a problem with it is someone who has something to hide! I see lots of problems with the story the public has been given so far. It does not make me a “hater” if I ask why certain things don’t add up!

    • Bronwen K. Williams says:

      I agree with the first two people to comment, but I also agree with Barbara Lander Burger. Asking questions and speculating about the, or any, incident does not make anyone a “hater” in my opinion. I’m wondering why, in a house of 16,000 sq.ft., some or all residents could not move to the other end of the house away from the fire, and then get out.? And this doesn’t make me a “hater”. Did the fire move so fast that it covered 16,000 sq.ft. before anyone inside could get to the end of the house away from the fire? Terrible tragedy and my sincere sympathy to the family, relatives, etc. and the fire crew.

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