Safety first in investigation of Salt Lake City fire
Investigators waited until top two floors of building and melted crane were removed.
Published: February 11, 2014 06:42AM
Updated: February 10, 2014 11:02PM
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Michael McFall | The Salt Lake Tribune A four-alarm fire burns in downtown Salt Lake City on the night of February 9, 2014.

A wrecking ball crashed over and over through the charred skeleton of a downtown Salt Lake City apartment complex, clearing the way for investigators to figure out why a massive blaze torched the building.

A crew also removed a damaged construction crane Monday, the arm of which melted over the flames Sunday night. The building under construction at 550 E. 500 South somehow had caught fire about 6 p.m., and it took about 60 firefighters more than an hour to put out the four-alarm inferno.

Investigators had to wait until the damaged crane and the top two floors of the four-story building were removed, since both could have fallen on top of them while they sifted through the rubble. Flare-ups also delayed the investigation, said Salt Lake City Fire Department spokesman Jasen Asay.

“There’s still smoke coming from it today, embers still burning under the [debris] pile,” Asay said early Monday. “So we have to wait for the fire to quit smoking completely, and then for the city building and housing department to determine if it is secure enough for our investigators to go inside.”

With the upper floors razed, investigators will start looking for clues Tuesday as to the cause of the fire, Asay said. He added that the investigation will be a careful process, and investigators may not determine what caused the blaze until week’s end.

On Sunday night, the fire filled the city’s skies with thick, billowing smoke reportedly visible from as far away as Davis County to the north. Before crews could control the flames, the scene’s nighttime skies also sparked with glowing, swirling embers.

At its height, the blaze forced evacuation of the nearby Smith’s Marketplace. However, firefighters were able to contain the fire to the complex, which was under construction at the time the fire broke out. Crews also worked hard to keep flames from toppling a construction crane at the site.

No one was reported injured in the blaze. Crews stayed through the night to mop up hot spots and were still dousing flare-ups at dawn.

On Monday, U.S. Development, the construction company erecting the apartments, moved in two additional cranes to stabilize and disassemble another crane left warped and unstable by heat from the fire, Asay said.

No firm damage estimates were immediately available, but the losses were expected to top $1.5 million, Asay said, adding that the price tag may go considerably higher if the foundation and an underground parking structure at the site also are found compromised.

The exposed wood framing of the unfinished units allowed flames to race throughout the 40-foot-high complex, an event watched by a crowd of hundreds from the store and neighboring residences.

One, a 27-year-old Salt Lake City man, apparently was not content to watch. He was discovered on the scene allegedly impersonating a firefighter and arrested. Asay said the bogus firefighter, who has showed up twice before at SLCFD calls within the past six months, was booked into the Salt Lake County jail on suspicion of a class B misdemeanor of impersonating a firefighter.

Asay said the man was not a suspect in the fire, but investigators will be questioning him to determine more about his motives.

remims@sltrib.com

Twitter: @remims