A city fire official on Friday declined to discuss whether the city's arson task force will take a new look at a fatal 2002 fire in the heart of downtown's arson zone.
The fire at 563 Rutledge Ave. on March 30, 2002, killed 78-year-old Marsh Bennett. City fire investigators originally classified the fire as accidental without pinpointing its cause.
Since then, as many as 83 suspicious fires have broken out in the densely packed streets north and south of the Crosstown, a recent Post and Courier report found. An arsonist targeted 563 Rutledge two times after the 2002 fire that killed Bennett, the newspaper found.
The city's arson task force met Thursday to discuss the case, said Mark Ruppel, the fire department's public information officer. The task force will contact members of the family about their findings, he said.
He declined to discuss the matter further and requested any questions be asked through a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Meanwhile, the department has failed to produce records describing the scope of its investigation into the fatal 2002 fire despite a newspaper request Oct. 6 under the state's open records act.
In contrast, police officials supplied the newspaper with their records, which included an initial hand-written four-page form describing the incident, a two-page supplemental report written by a detective, and a three-page follow-up report the day Bennett died.
An officer's report on the day of the fire described how firefighters went into the burning home and found Bennett on the floor. He died five days later.
The detective's report said the fire department's investigator told him that the fire started on the porch and gradually overtook the rest of the house. The detective said he talked with three residents on the first floor and noted that two smoked Marlboros, and that the department's testing equipment didn't find any presence of accelerants. "At this time, it does not appear that the fire is suspicious."
In a follow-up report after Bennett died, the detective called the fire department again and was told, "There are no new developments beyond arson and electrical sources being excluded as possibilities." The detective concluded that the source of the fire may never be known.
Family members of Bennett have urged the city to reopen the case, saying that the fire department hasn't fully investigated the possibility that an arsonist was responsible for Bennett's death, especially in light of all the fires that took place during the next decade, including some a block or two away.
The newspaper also requested documents under the open records act for three fires on Carolina and Morris streets that readers said were intentionally set but not listed on the fire department's roster of suspicious fires. The department has yet to produce the reports related to these fires.