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Twice Burned

The Dreyfuss Club before a fire destroyed it in October.

Plans to replace the historic Dreyfuss Club at White Rock Lake, which burned to the ground last fall, are ongoing, but what caused the fire that destroyed the vintage city building remains "undetermined," according to a Dallas Fire-Rescue report obtained by the Dallas Observer. Arson cannot be ruled out.

"Everything about the first fire at the Dreyfuss Club appeared and appears to have been an electrical fire," says Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Sipes. "I would have been comfortable with that finding except that we had another fire the next night."

The Dreyfuss Club fire was reported at 3 a.m. October 23; the building was destroyed. At about 10:30 p.m. the same day another fire erupted at a historic White Rock Lake Park building. The blaze started in a trash can at the Flagpole Hill administrative office, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and caused considerable damage to the structure before it was extinguished.

"That could have been accidental as well," Sipes says. "But the coincidence is what we're concerned about."

A master electrician for the city does not believe the cause of the Dreyfuss Club fire was electrical.

"When I got there, it was like the whole front had been burnt," says Randy Shaw, who works for the Dallas Parks Department. "It looked like, to me, that it started in the front and moved to the back where all our electrical equipment was. But who knows?"

A resident of the area believes that the cause will never be determined because evidence was destroyed within hours of the fire being extinguished.

Ben Davis, a resident of the Peninsula neighborhood and former president of the neighborhood association, says that the electrical panel and other electrical equipment were hauled off and the site bulldozed within hours of the fire, before it could be properly investigated.

Now retired, Davis worked for years as an electrical engineer at Westinghouse Electric and later examined electrical faults and fires as a consultant. Davis suspects that a mistake by a contractor for TXU or the Parks Department caused the fire. If so, the financial responsibility for replacing the building should fall on the contractor's shoulders, Davis says, not on the Dallas taxpayer.

The morning of the fire, Davis says, he went to the scene and saw workers removing the circuit breaker panel and other electrical equipment from the destroyed building. "It was barely daylight," Davis says. "It was still smoking. The park department was tearing out the electrical panel that was on the only wall standing. It was a new, large circuit breaker panel. The fire department was still there still rolling up their hoses. They were going to bulldoze it. I said, 'What are you doing? You're destroying evidence.'"

Davis says the workers told him Dallas Fire-Rescue ordered them to remove it. "They said we're going to bulldoze the building so people won't have to look at it," Davis says. "That was strange they were doing it so fast. What was the emergency?"

Sipes says that he ordered the building to be demolished 36 hours after the fire, not that morning.

"I believe he's a day off," Sipes says. "We allowed the parks department to pull the fuse box. We didn't see anything noteworthy there."

Frank Librio, director of the public information office at City Hall, says that two days after the fire, the streets department was notified to demolish the building. "Dallas Fire and Rescue said, 'Hold off, we want to do more investigative work,'" Librio says. The structure was demolished 10 days after the fire, he says.

The events leading up to the fire remain murky.

The 70-year-old building had new wiring and electrical equipment after a renovation completed in 2002. Problems had surfaced in the days before the fire with the breaker or lights flickering.

Jerry Foote, a supervisor with the Parks Department, says he was contacted by Jill Beam, the city employee who handles building rentals, on the Saturday morning before the fire. There was an event going on at the Dreyfuss Club, and something was wrong with the power.

Foote's department handles the exterior of city buildings. Foote told her to contact EBS, Equipment and Building Services, which handles the interior problems in city buildings. When she explained that she couldn't get in touch with EBS, Foote notified master electrician Shaw, who sent one of his electricians to check it out.

"The guy who unlocked the building told him somebody from EBS had come and reset the breaker and the power came back up," Shaw says.

But that hadn't solved the problem. "As we were leaving the guy that opens the buildings came back and said...his TV wasn't working," Shaw says. "Some of the lights were not working. I told our electrician to check the power. He found out it wasn't the right voltage at the panel. On the TXU side, the voltage was not correct."  

That could have been caused by losing a transformer, Shaw says. "Maybe it went bad. I've seen it happen before." Shaw's employee turned all the breakers and the main power source off to prevent problems until it could be repaired.

Shaw says he called Beam and told her the power was wrong. Another party had rented the building for Sunday. "We called TXU out," Shaw says.

A subcontractor for TXU, which Shaw identifies as Standard Utilities, arrived with a bucket truck and began testing the building's electrical systems.

"What he did I couldn't tell you, but he confirmed that the problem was on their [TXU's] side," Shaw says. "I do know he ran a new line from the pole over to the building. He checked everything and said the power was good. We turned things back on and the power was good. There were some lamps out so we exchanged those and got those working. We checked the plugs with a tester. Everything seemed to be normal as far as we knew."

The electricians left Saturday evening confident that the building was safe.

On Monday morning, Shaw was shocked to hear the building had been destroyed. "We'd found nothing that would have caused a problem," Shaw says. He arrived at the scene and told fire investigators what had happened on Saturday.

When Shaw heard that the fire was being called electrical, he was skeptical, especially in light of the second fire within 24 hours at a park building.

"I've always heard that if they can't find the exact cause they call it an electrical fire," he says. "My stomach just sank when I heard that."

Shaw says that the only electrical equipment remaining on the scene the morning of the fire when he got there was the outdoor electrical panel and the meter. "It stayed there until we were called to remove it after the fire investigators did what they did," Shaw says. "I believe it was that afternoon. They had told us they were done."

A dog was brought in to sniff the site for accelerant and found nothing. Nor was evidence of an accelerant found at the site of the other fire.

Sipes says that his investigation showed that the TXU contractor ran a neutral line from the pole to the building. "We know who he is and what function he did," Sipes says. "We don't believe it had anything to do with the fire." Sipes declined to give the contractor's name.

Davis and Sipes believe that the fire probably was caused by an electrical arc that started a flame that was then sucked into the furnace duct work. "However it started, it got up underneath that pier and beam foundation and must have created a wind tunnel that was pushing the fire," Sipes says.

But Sipes has been unable to sign off on the investigations of either fire. "The fire that started in the trash can underneath the eave of the park building caused a reasonable amount of damage," Sipes says. "It didn't burn the building down. But the second fire in the second night caused us some concern." He points out that a trash fire could have "percolated" for hours before flaring up.

"We've talked to some people who may have had some involvement," Sipes says. "It's open and ongoing. We hope to have a decision on that as far as a cause."

Sipes declined to identify those questioned about the second fire. "I can't say what we do know and don't know," Sipes says. "If it was a set fire, I don't want to give information to a suspect." Though the Dreyfuss fire appeared electrical from the physical evidence, "appearances might be deceiving. The investigation is ongoing. If it ends up being a set fire we hope new evidence surfaces."

Davis believes that the hasty removal of the smoldering remains assures that the exact cause will remain unknown. If it could be shown that TXU and its subcontractor failed to correct problems that led to the building's destruction, the burden to replace the building would fall to them and their insurance companies.

The cost to replace the building is estimated to exceed more than a million dollars. "I think anybody that had liability as a part of that fire, the city would turn to them to be a part of rebuilding the building," says Gary Griffith, city council member in the White Rock Lake area.

"It may have been an honest mistake," says Davis, "but a big mistake."


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