California Firefighter's Death Being Investigated

Firefighters trying to control a raging blaze at a home in Los Gatos knew a downed electrical wire was dangerous before it killed one of their own, a county fire department spokesman said.

But it remained unclear if Capt. Mark McCormack knew that before he came into contact with the power line and was killed during the four-alarm fire early Sunday.

Fire officials said the blaze at 15700 Blossom Hill Road started in the same general area of the property as a November 2003 fire that burned a second-story sunroom used as a prayer area.

The cause of the fire had not been determined by Monday afternoon, but fire officials said they hope to know that by today. Santa Clara County code enforcement authorities, however, served notice Monday on the property owners to immediately repair or demolish the home.

``We're focusing on what the exact cause of the fire was,'' said Santa Clara County Fire Dept. Capt. Dennis Johnsen, ``The cause of the 2003 fire was undetermined. The fire department red-tagged that building.''

That meant the family could no longer live in that part of the house. It was determined Monday that the latest fire -- reported at 2:20 a.m. Sunday -- started inside the house, not outside, Johnsen said. Quyen B. Nguyen, his wife, two of his three children and an adult male guest from New York were asleep when the fire broke out, he said.

``It makes you wonder why there was another fire here but it could have been a coincidence,'' he said. ``There were things built here that were not permitted.''

Along with sifting through debris during a steady downpour on Monday, investigators also interviewed all of the firefighters who were working with McCormack when he made contact with the electrical wire, which was draped over a tree and hanging two to three feet above the ground. The power line -- about 1/4-inch wide and carrying 12,000 volts of electricity -- provided power to homes above the Nguyen home and just happened to be strung over the area that was burning.

Firefighters ``were aware it was hot,'' Capt. Johnsen said. ``They were waiting on PG&E to come and shut the power off.''

The fire was reported about 2:20 a.m. Sunday and McCormack, 36, a newly promoted captain, arrived at the scene about 2:32 a.m. He made contact with the power line about 3:35 a.m. A Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crew arrived about 10 minutes later. McCormack's fellow firefighters tried to resuscitate him before taking him to Columbia Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 4:15 a.m.

Johnsen said officials have ``two scenarios'' about what they think happened but declined to provide details.

``It was dark, there was a lot going on at the time, a lot of water in the driveway,'' he said.

McCormack became the first firefighter in the 58-year history of the Santa Clara County Fire Department to die in the line of duty. Funeral arrangements are pending.

County officials also took action Monday to force the property owner to repair or demolish the home. In a letter, Nguyen was informed that the property has been declared unsafe and dangerous and that he must obtain a permit and begin to repair or demolish what's left within 20 days. The work must be completed within 180 days of the order.

``If the required work is not commenced within the time allowed, the County may take legal action against you, or may cause the work to be done, and thereafter place a lien against the property for the costs incurred,'' stated the letter written by Alfred Alciati, senior building inspector for the county.

The sprawling property consists of five buildings. The main house has at least nine rooms, most of it used for ``storage,'' according to plans submitted to the county. There is a greenhouse, a sunroom on the second floor, used as a religious room. There is also a pool.

``There are a lot of shrines and prayer areas,'' Johnsen said. ``Neighbors have been complaining for years about expansion of the house they said was done without permits.''


Funeral Information

Saturday, February 19, 2005 @ 1:30 p.m.

HP Pavilion

525 W. Santa Clara Street

San Jose, CA 95113

For additional details related to the memorial service and for the procession route map, go to www.sccfd.org.

Fire departments, law enforcement, EMS and elected officials who wish to attend the memorial service are requested to RSVP to the Santa Clara County Fire Department website at www.sccfd.org.

All media should park in parking lot D. Parking lot D is located on W. Santa Clara Street. Upon arrival, media are requested to check-in at designated check point at 10:00 a.m. to receive complete media packet. Procession scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m.

Community residents are also welcome to attend the memorial service and should arrive and be seated by 12:30 p.m. Parking is limited, and residents are encouraged to use public transportation to the HP Pavilion.

General information is available by calling the Information Hotline @ 408.378.4279. The hotline is staffed M-F 8:00-5:00 p.m. PST

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to:

Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation

In Memory of Mark F. McCormack

665 3rd Street, Suite #345

San Francisco, CA 94107

Bank of the West

Mark F. McCormack Memorial Fund

Account #017-012-286

2395 Winchester Blvd

Campbell, CA 95008

Donations can be mailed to this branch or any Bank of the West branch in your area. Please be sure to reference the account number on your check to ensure that your donation is posted to the correct account.


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