Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the May 18 fire at the Ingram Square shopping center, which claimed the life of firefighter Scott Deem and injured two other firefighters, San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood said Tuesday.
The exact cause of Deem’s death is still unknown, Hood told reporters during a briefing near the site. The damaged shopping center, which includes the Milan Institute, a cosmetology school, Computer Repair Plus, Spartan Gym, and a Texas Thrift Store, are currently blocked off with caution tape. Deem’s body was found in the gym, Hood said in a press conference the morning after the fire.
The SAFD’s Arson Bureau; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office; and the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health are investigating, Hood said.
“It’s a complete comprehension of making sure that we do everything necessary – whether it’s taking materials and burning them up in other places or doing studies on the wind – to find out what the cause of a fire was,” he said. “We also have to find out the cause of Scott Deem’s death.”
Deem’s death marked SAFD’S first firefighter fatality in 20 years. Firefighter Robert Vasquez sustained minor injuries and was discharged from the hospital days later. Firefighter Brad Phipps sustained serious burns and remains in critical but stable condition at the San Antonio Military Medical Center’s burn center and intensive care unit at Fort Sam Houston. Phipps fought with paramedics the night of the fire, determined to re-enter the building to save Deem.
“Brad’s breathing tube has been taken out, so I had an opportunity to have a good conversation with him a couple of days ago … which was very uplifting for us,” Hood said. “With injuries like that, it’s going to take a multitude of surgeries for him to recover.”
Hood said that he has not spoken to Phipps about Deem’s death.
“I made it a point not to discuss this fire with him,” Hood said. “It’s very important that he recuperates on his own time and [does] not have the emotion or the knowledge that people were injured or died, so those details we’re keeping away from him.”
To gain closure from the tragedy and instruct firefighters about how changing fire conditions can turn deadly, the SAFD is bringing personnel to tour the two most heavily damaged buildings before the structures are demolished.
“We are bringing over 2,000 people over to this building in the next week or so, and we will also bring some of our regional fire departments that we work with very closely,” Hood said. “For us, this is an opportunity for closure. We’re rotating crews through, they are getting education information and a floor plan of the site.”
No phones are allowed on the site, and no one in the fire department is allowed to take photos due to the continuing investigation, Hood said, but firefighters will have a chance to go through the gym and computer store to analyze the damage.
“We’ve put pictures up to represent what the gym looked like before the fire … [and] what it looked like the night of the fire,” he said. ” There will be easels with information on things that occurred at a specific time [during the fire].
“The main thing is that they understand that this job is extremely dangerous, and we take risks every day – close to 900 times a day. The job became real in a way that none of us have ever seen in this generation, so we have to continue to capture that realism and effect it in training and behaviors as we go forward.”
Hood called the four-alarm fire at the strip mall on the city’s Northwest side, which injured no civilians, one of the most challenging experiences of his career. A total of 83 SAFD units responded to the blaze. Station 35 – Deem’s station – was the first on the scene.
The tour of the affected buildings is an opportunity for SAFD to learn what it can about the incident, Hood said, but he doesn’t see any changes to daily operations on the horizon.
“It’s an opportunity to galvanize this organization and make sure that whatever we learn we’re going to take it and be better by it but I don’t see any wholesale changes in procedures, policies, anything like that,” he said. “We’re a very safe fire department, but sometimes things happen to really good fire departments, and that happened to us.”