ATF begins West Oakland BART fire investigation


This is not going to be your average fire investigation. The team that's been brought in from ATF is made up of the same folks who were called in to investigate the Oklahoma City bombing and the Pentagon attack on Sept. 11. They were requested by local authorities.

Last Thursday's fire at the four-story senior housing project was so intense that when it was over, only a single story remained. Three floors of the building that was still under constructions are now a single story of ash and twisted metal.

"We're actually pulling it apart piece by piece, layer by layer," ATF National Response Team spokesperson Brian Hoback said.

The NRT's leader says they will start the heavy lifting Thursday. Wednesday, they were photographing and mapping the building. It's the same process on every investigation, looking for how the fire moved.

"In this particular instance I will tell you there's not a whole lot of fire patterns to look at; so we're going to have to go through the debris layer by layer and hand sift though some of those layers to see if we can't find what actually was the cause of this fire," Hoback said.

Twenty-two ATF investigators flew in Tuesday. With local ATF agents, the team is about 30 in all. They say it will take until Sunday to sort through the debris. As fire investigations go, this one ranks among the most difficult because there is so little left.

"The bottom line is, it's like a puzzle; I'm sure you guys have heard that before, it is," Hoback said. "We're going to take those pieces, put them back together and hopefully it'll tell us what caused it."

One big factor is the building was under construction. Contractors had not yet hooked up the electricity.

ABC7 News asked Hoback if that makes arson more likely.

"Common sense, to answer your question, makes it more likely, makes it possibility," he said. "Our protocol and our systematic approach doesn't allow us to do that. We have to do it by the numbers because when we get on the witness stand we have to testify as experts that we eliminated all the accidental causes."

One bit about their success rate: If you look at arson cases, for example, the national average for solving an arson fire is around 15 percent. The NRT's average is around 50 percent.

The bill for the investigation will easily run into the hundreds of thousands.

Copyright © 2023 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.