Georgia Investigators Seize Fire Dept. Records

Feb. 13--About 10 investigators with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and local district attorney's office descended Tuesday on the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services administrative office, interviewing commanders and collecting boxes of fire department records to pore over.

GBI Special Agent in Charge Wayne Smith said his agents were probing how the department handles documents, some related to a February 2010 home day care fire that injured four children, one fatally. Smith said the GBI investigation was initiated at the request of Julia Slater, district attorney of the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Columbus.

Slater in a statement said she sought the GBI's assistance "after receiving information indicating that department employees may have committed criminal acts involving the creation, maintenance and accuracy of official reports and documents."

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said there have been no personnel changes.

"The investigation is ongoing," Tomlinson said. "I can't speculate as to its findings, if any, and therefore I can't speculate as to the need for any action by the city."

Smith said investigators with a search warrant talked to about a dozen fire department workers and collected about two boxes of documents Tuesday. No arrests were made and no agents questioned had to be advised of his or her rights before talking with investigators, Smith said.

Slater in her statement said the agents were "conducting interviews with specific department employees and members of the command staff. ... The search and interviews are part of an ongoing effort to establish what occurred and if criminal conduct was involved."

Smith and others close to the probe confirmed agents were examining some documents related to a Feb. 26, 2010, blaze that began in a carport and quickly spread into a home at 5629 Mill Branch Road, where resident Rochell J. Jefferson ran a home day care.

Two adults and nine children were inside around 1:30 p.m. that Friday when the fire spread from the carport into the house. Four children were injured, and one of them, 23-month-old Michael Duvard Jr., died the next day at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga.

The fire prompted multiple investigations by state regulators, insurance companies and the fire department, which launched an internal probe when one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene later complained that his engine company was two short of a full complement of five firefighters, and one of the men backing him up did not come into the burning house to help when called for.

A fire department report detailed the confusion authorities responding to the blaze faced. They said Jefferson told them she had eight children to care for that day when in fact nine had been in the house. At least one child was rescued by a neighbor, who went in through a rear bedroom window.

The first firefighter to rush in found the ceiling collapsing in the home's front living room and saw a child lying on the floor. He rescued that child as other firefighters then arriving found two more who were still inside, according to the report.

The last child to be pulled from the house was in a bedroom where the burning roof had collapsed. The boy was in a baby car seat, and much of his clothing had burned off, firefighters reported.

Chief Thomas Streeter, who was the fire marshal at the time, said the child had first- and second-degree burns over 80 percent to 85 percent of his body. The other three injured children -- all infants -- suffered smoke inhalation, and one had first- and second-degree burns on 20 percent of his body, Streeter said.

Investigators believed the fire started in a carport shed where flammable materials such as paint and gasoline had been stored near a hot water heater. The carport blaze also destroyed two vehicles, a 2004 Ford Expedition and a 2001 Dodge pickup.

State regulators later said the home day care was supposed to have had only six children from paying clients, not nine.

Smith, the GBI agent heading the fire department investigation the district attorney requested, said Tuesday that the day care fire was just one of several issues for which authorities sought paperwork from the department.

After agents left his office, Fire Chief Jeff Meyer told reporters the probe ultimately will benefit the department by proving its record keeping is accurate and properly maintained. "In a way, it's just another way to validate what we do in the department," he said. "Over the past four or five years, we've probably been the most scrutinized departments in city government, if not one of the most scrutinized."

He said his workers are cooperating with investigators and expect no wrongdoing will be uncovered.

"I am confident that the truth will come out, in the end," he said.

Copyright 2013 - Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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