Nearly a full year after a two-pronged morning fire gutted one Pleasant Street building and damaged one adjacent to it, the state Fire Marshal's office has found that the blaze started by accident.
But while state investigators have closed their probe, ruling out other causes, the Gloucester Police Department says its detectives still consider it an open case and are still investigating.
The March 4, 2011, fire ravaged the Schlichte-Johnstone and Henry law offices and a residence at 14 Pleasant St., and damaged the building at 16 Pleasant as well. More than 11 months later, the 14 Pleasant St. building, which is owned by City Assessor Gary Johnstone and his wife, attorney Patricia Schlichte-Johnstone, and also served as their home, remains vacant and heavily boarded.
State Police investigators, in their fire investigation summary report, state that the fire started from an undetermined electrical event in the law office's first-floor ceiling. The Times obtained the report last week through a state Access to Public Records request that was filed in November.
City officials on the scene the morning of the fire — including Mayor Carolyn Kirk — had deemed the blaze "suspicious" at the time. And a separate after-action report commissioned by the city found later last year that the blaze may have started when materials in a downstairs office "simultaneously" caught fire.
But the Fire Marshal's office report, authored by Sherly O'Donnell with the State Police Fire and Explosion investigation team, states that the fire started accidentally, and rules out any other causes.
"The cause of the incident was ... accidental, and the result, more probable than not, due to an electrical event located between the ceiling of the first floor and the second floor," the report states. "All other ignition sources in the area of origin have been considered and eliminated."
The state's accelerant-sniffing dog, Yahtzee, according to the report, did not find the scent of any ignitable liquids in the first-floor office.
The city's Police Department, however, is keeping the case open.
Detective Steven Mizzoni, who conducted the city's police investigation of the fire, said Friday that he's still working on it. Mizzoni declined to comment on why he's continuing the case.
"The investigation is still ongoing as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Deputy Fire Chief Steven Aiello who conducted the department's own investigation declined to comment on the state report, saying he had not yet seen it.
Deputy Chief Miles Schlichte, who served as incident commander at the scene and is the brother of Patricia Schlichte-Johnstone, said he takes no issue with the State Police investigation.
"Whatever the State Police say, I'll go with that," he said.
According to local and state reports, Schlichte arrived to the scene first, observed smoke puffing from the windows and called in the initial response shortly after 6 a.m. that Friday.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze that began in a first-floor office. But after the firefighters had pulled back — and as the department rotated shifts — the fire kicked up a second time, this time much more violently.
According to a scathing after-action response report commissioned by the mayor and delivered last July by the New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources Inc., or MRI, firefighters had checked the walls before they withdrew from the scene, and didn't find any heat. But they did not pull inside the walls. And while they tried to ventilate the building with a so-called positive pressure ventilator — essentially a giant fan — that action may have added oxygen and even fueled the fire, according to the MRI report. which does not cite who ordered any of the specific tactics.
As crews rotated, the building started smoking again — and this time, firefighters pulling ceilings and walls found fire in-between, according to the MRI report, which cited the city's Fire Department for several failures in the blaze.
The century-old building had double ceilings and walls, one of sheetrock and the other plaster. The fire, the State Police investigation also found, ran between those spaces.
MRI's report indicated that the fire started from several materials in the first-floor office "spontaneously" catching fire. And the State Police investigation found that much of the initial fire damage was confined to that office.
After the initial blaze, the report states, that was the only room that had sustained fire damage. Each of those offices contains a ceiling fan with a hanging pendant light, the report notes; most of the fire damage in that room was confined to a central office desk and chair.
According to the state's report, Gary Johnstone had heard two thuds on the first floor the day of the fire. Ten minutes later, he started to smell smoke, and then found heavy smoke on the first floor.
The report states that he got his wife out of the building, and initially attempted to extinguish the fire with two plastic water jugs. He said the fire could be seen on top of a bookcase and on the floor next to the door.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.