Hours after a warehouse fire in southwest Baltimore was extinguished early Sunday, the scene went eeriely quiet as Donte Craig stepped through the charred wreckage trying to maintain hope.
He was looking for his older brother, James Craig Jr., who had leased the warehouse for his demolition and haulage business. After hearing about the fire, which was reported around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, family members stayed up overnight in worry as James Craig Jr. was not responding to calls or messages.
Finally late on Sunday night his brother reached the spot.
Inside the building, he found the body of his 45-year-old brother on the second floor. Baltimore police have launched a murder investigation.
“I don’t know how dark it was, but if they had climbed up there, they would have seen his body,”, “I want to know who stopped them from going there.”
The relatives are demanding answers as the investigation progresses. They want to know how firefighters initially failed to realize that the building was occupied.
His questions add to a growing controversy surrounding the Baltimore Fire Department and its policies, which came under scrutiny earlier this year after three firefighters died after responding to a call. The chief resigned last week in response to an investigative report that found several lapses.
Responding to questions about the warehouse fire, officials said they had no reason to believe anyone was inside the two-story commercial building. He also stated that the building was ultimately deemed structurally unsafe for firefighters to enter.
But the Craig family said there were signs of occupation, including about half a dozen dogs spending the night in a nearby enclosure. According to family members, first responders had the dogs taken to an animal shelter.
James Craig Jr. used the first floor of the warehouse as a workshop, but also had a bedroom upstairs where he would sometimes stay after working late hours. According to his brother, he fell at the top of the stairs.
“He was trying to get out,” Donte Craig said in an interview at the scene Tuesday afternoon.
He pointed to the stairs leading to the second floor. While parts of the building were severely damaged by the flames – including parts of the walls and floorboards that were reduced to charcoal and ash – the metal staircase was intact.
Donte Craig said he simply walked up the stairs Sunday morning and saw his brother’s body before reaching the top. He questioned why the firefighters did not make a similar effort.
“My son was upstairs,” father James Craig Sr. told CBS Baltimore. “He could have been unconscious at that point. They could have revived him, you know what I mean? And, he would still be alive.”
The criticism comes amid current turmoil for the Baltimore Fire Department. Chief Niles Ford, who had led the department since 2014, resigned last week after an investigative report found several shortcomings. The report examined the department’s response to a southwest Baltimore rowhouse fire that killed three firefighters.
Among the investigative findings: There was no program to inform firefighters about vacant and unprotected homes or standard procedures for fighting fires and coordinating EMS responses in vacant buildings. The report also cited a culture of competition among firefighters, which may have led to increased risk-taking.
In that case, there were signs of a previous fire and structural instability, but firefighters entered the building, officials said.
Baltimore’s high concentration of vacant buildings presents a unique threat to firefighters. An investigation by the Baltimore Sun revealed that vacant homes in Baltimore burn at twice the national rate, but gaps in record-keeping limit what firefighters know before they go inside.
Department spokeswoman Blair Adams said that after a recent warehouse fire, firefighters initially entered the building and “conducted an internal operation to fight the fire.” But then the incident commander and safety officer discovered “some visible signs of structural instability” and ordered an immediate evacuation. Only then did the fire personnel control the fire from outside.
Officials said the fire was brought under control at around 1 am on Sunday.
“There was no reason to believe anyone was inside,” Adams said in a text message Tuesday.
He said that after the body was found, fire brigade personnel again reached the spot on Sunday. The homicide and arson units of the Baltimore Police also responded. Officials said the cause is still under investigation.
James Craig Sr. said he was not satisfied with the city’s response.
“I’m getting assumptions; I’m not getting any facts,” he said Tuesday afternoon during a phone conversation with a homicide detective assigned to the case. “You have to remember, the reality of it is I lost my son. That’s the reality of the whole thing.”
Neighbors also told CBS Baltimore that they do not understand why the fire department failed to search the building.
“I guess they didn’t do their chores that night,” said a neighbor. “They didn’t rehearse. They didn’t do what they should have done.”