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Baltimore City

Deaths of three Baltimore firefighters in January are ruled homicides; blaze was ‘incendiary,’ ATF says

The deaths of three Baltimore firefighters in a January blaze have been classified as homicides, police said, after investigators determined the fire was “incendiary.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Wednesday declared the fire incendiary, a definition that includes fires intentionally set as well as fires that were not intentionally set but resulted directly from other criminal activity, according to a news release from the agency.

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The agency has also made contact with a person of interest who investigators believed had information about the deadly blaze in Southwest Baltimore’s Mount Clare neighborhood.

A reward for information about the person of interest ballooned to $100,000 as ATF circulated a surveillance photo and video of a man walking down South Stricker Street seven hours before the abandoned rowhouse caught fire. Firefighters arrived just before 6 a.m. Jan. 24 and entered the burning house that partially collapsed minutes later, killing Lts. Paul Butrim and Kelsey Sadler and paramedic/firefighter Kenneth Lacayo. Firefighter/EMT John McMaster was seriously injured and has since recovered.

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ATF declined to identify the man considered to be a person of interest. The man has not been charged with a crime or taken into custody, ATF spokeswoman Amanda Hils said. The agency said it appreciates the numerous tips it received from the public but declined to say whether any reward money has been distributed.

Blair Adams, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Fire Department, said Fire Chief Niles R. Ford did not have a comment on ATF’s announcement.

The “on-scene” portion of the fire investigation concluded in February and what remained of the burned rowhouse was torn down. Firefighters demolished parts of the rowhouse hours after its initial collapse to recover the body of Butrim, who died at the scene. Sadler and Lacayo were pulled from the rubble nearly two hours after the burning structure collapsed. They died later at Shock Trauma. McMaster was removed from the debris within 30 minutes and spent three days in the hospital.

Josh Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, said the news that the fire was classified as incendiary is “bittersweet.”

“It is a reopening of a terrible wound that is only in the earliest stages of healing and we join in our brothers and sisters in our continued and shared bereavement,” Fannon said in a statement. “On the other hand, we now have confirmed our suspicions that this was a criminal act and are united in our assistance and support of law enforcement in their continuing investigation that will hopefully lead to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.”

Fire investigators have not said whether the fire was set intentionally or accidentally. But the incendiary classification does allow the State Medical Examiner’s Office to make an official ruling on the cause of the firefighters’ death. More than two months after their deaths and cremations, a medical examiner ruled Tuesday that Sadler, Laycao and Butrim died by homicide. The families of the fallen firefighters could not receive their respective death certificates without an official ruling, and consequently have been unable to apply for some death benefits, Fannon said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said his homicide detectives will now launch their own investigation, which will be conducted in conjunction with ATF.

Mayor Brandon Scott said he spent time with some family members of the fallen firefighters when they were honored during Opening Day ceremonies at Camden Yards on Monday. He expressed confidence Baltimore police and federal investigators will solve the case.

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“Our homicide detectives are working every day … bringing some sense of peace and closure to families — and we know they’ll do the same in this one,” Scott said during remarks to the media Wednesday afternoon.

The Maryland State Fire Marshal is assisting ATF and Baltimore Police with the fire investigation. The fire at 205 S. Stricker St. is one of the deadliest for firefighters in city history. The vacant property had caught fire at least two other times, including in 2015 when three firefighters were injured while extinguishing heavy flames. During the incident, firefighters battled flames on the first floor and used a chain saw to cut through the ceiling of the third floor. Three firefighters were sent to the hospital with injuries, including one who was transported from the scene by stretcher.

The city firefighters’ deaths have drawn renewed attention from city officials to tackle a decadeslong problem of abandoned buildings that become safety hazards. About 15,000 homes in the city sit empty. Scott announced in March that the city will spend $100 million of its federal American Rescue Plan dollars on funding rehabilitation efforts for vacant properties and other housing initiatives.

This month, two Baltimore firefighters have been rescued after falling through the floor of a burning building, including an incident Tuesday night.

While fighting a fire in the Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore, a firefighter fell through a house’s first floor into its basement just before 10:30 p.m. The firefighter entered a rowhouse that is under construction in an attempt to stop a fire that started in a vacant rowhouse and ultimately spread to four other homes.

The firefighter was “immediately rescued” and taken to the hospital, according to the fire department. He has since been released.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Lea Skene contributed to this article.


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