Before the fire, Josh remembered the heat.
The sprinkler fitter had started his day in the parking garage of the planned Residences at Sugar Alley development, where he could catch an occasional breeze of the cool October air.
But inside the halls of the connected Sugar House apartment structure, where he would finish his shift, the air was hot, humid — continuously warmed by the big “salamander” heaters set up throughout the job site.
Those same stifling corridors were also lined with “lots of debris,” he recalled: cardboard boxes, pieces of wood and scraps from drywall work, according to a new investigative report released this week.
Several of the 105 people working to build the residential and retail complex that day had complained about the heat, according to the new report, and some were even placing gypsum board in front of doorways to try and block it from emanating into the units they were working in.
Others, fed up with the heat altogether, kept going out to the terrace that day to cool off under the cloudy skies, which brought traces of rain.
The workers couldn’t turn off the heaters though — not after a man got yelled at for fiddling with one, according to the new report. And when workers instead asked supervisors about turning them down, they were repeatedly told not to, the report states.
After everyone went home that night, the building would grow even hotter, as flames ignited and a massive fire broke out that completely destroyed the development, choking the area in smoke for days.
How did the fire start?
The newly released report compiled by the Salt Lake City Fire Department and Salt Lake City police includes numerous interviews with laborers who worked construction at the Residences at Sugar Alley, all identified by their first name only.
The project was poised to become an eight-story residential and commercial property located at 2188 S. Highland Drive, in the heart of Sugar House’s main business district. Plans called for 186 new apartments and several large, ground-floor spaces devoted to retail at the U-shaped building, as well as a publicly accessible atrium. Completion was expected early this year.
The report narrows the cause of the overnight Oct. 25 fire — which forced the evacuation of about 1,000 people in adjacent apartment buildings — down to two possible culprits: the propane-fueled “salamander” heaters, and small “spider boxes” set up throughout the site to provide temporary power to workers.
Capt. Shaun Mumedy, with SLCFD, said investigators couldn’t completely rule out arson either. But authorities didn’t find concrete evidence that suggests the fire — which sent one person to a hospital for smoke inhalation, but otherwise resulted in no injuries — was started intentionally.
“Can we completely, without a doubt, absolutely rule out arson?” Mumedy told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. “No.”
Ultimately, the cause was considered “undetermined,” which is often the result of fire investigations, due to the destructive nature of fire itself, Mumedy said.
This fire in particular was especially difficult to investigate, he noted. It sparked in the massive building’s northwest corner, between the sixth and eighth floors, and spread throughout most of the under-construction development, eventually causing the structure to collapse, though it continued to smolder for days — racking up about $59 million in damage, the report states.
Regardless of how it started, the gas supply lines that fed the job site heaters were also “compromised” during the blaze, according to the report, and “did contribute to the spread of the fire along with hampering the extinguishing efforts of the fire crews.”
A California-based spokesperson affiliated with Lowe Property Group, the Salt Lake City developers behind the complex, said he didn’t know where that damage estimate came from. “Definitely not from anyone with knowledge of our project,” said Ron Cole, a principal with Eight Bay Advisors in Newport Beach, Calif., a key financier in Sugar Alley.
He didn’t specify why he felt the damage estimate may be off base, and he declined to comment on the report released to The Tribune this week, acknowledging Tuesday that he had not seen it.
But he added that there was “no change in direction of our rebuild.”
“We continue to move forward in that direction,” Cole said. “Demolition is proceeding as planned.”
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