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Harbor Inn fire remains a mystery

By David Talley | Published Saturday, May 13, 2017
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Undetermined

UNDETERMINED – A state fire marshal’s report offered more details, but no concrete cause, for the fire that destroyed part of the Harbor Inn hotel and restaurant last fall. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The cause of the Harbor Inn fire last fall remains undetermined six months after the blaze.

In October 2016, a fire destroyed two of the three buildings that make up the Harbor Inn hotel and restaurant in Runaway Bay. The investigation was closed in January 2017, according to a report by State Fire Marshal Investigator Sgt. David Vesely, obtained by the Messenger through a public information request.

Although a cause was undetermined, the report states the fire “originated somewhere on the south side of the second floor of the north building.”

The Harbor Inn sits on the north side of U.S. 380 just west of the bridge that stretches over Lake Bridgeport. Vesely’s report states owner Elvin Jackson was at the property around 11:30 a.m. the day of the fire mowing and clearing trash. Jackson told Vesely and private fire investigator Mark Howell he did not remember if he was on the second floor the day of the fire because he had been coming every day to clean up the property. Jackson told the investigators he left about 3 p.m.

The initial 911 call was less than an hour later, and Vesely’s report lists Runaway Bay Volunteer Fire Department responding at 3:53 p.m. Six fire departments responded in mutual aid as crews made external attacks on the structure from multiple angles and used a ladder truck to douse flames from above. Runaway Bay Fire Chief Brian Bernardo said firefighters used several thousand gallons of water drafted partly from the lake to battle the blaze.

Jackson signed written consent for investigators to search the property after the fire.

During the investigation, a witness told Vesely he didn’t see anyone around the building at the time of the fire. Jackson also said he hadn’t seen anyone at the property in the days leading up to the fire. However, Vesely noted the complex’s south building had evidence of people were staying in the rooms at night, including fresh bread and unexpired boxed goods. Jackson also told Howell he “believed someone was at the property the day of the fire watching him and that unknown persons may have started the fire.”

When asked directly if he started the fire due to his current financial difficulties, Jackson denied involvement. The investigator noted he “did not observe any non-verbal cues that would indicate [Jackson] was being deceptive” during the interview.

Several parties mentioned in Vesely’s report remain unidentified. The fire’s first 911 caller, a local fisherman, said he met an unidentified younger male at the scene of the fire who told him he checked rooms on the first floor. The caller also told Vesely he saw two white females and one white male going into several of the rooms in the south building the day before the fire.

Vesely concluded accidental electrical issues did not cause the fire because no public utility service was connected to the building at the time. He was unable to eliminate the possibility it was started by a person, whether accidentally or intentionally.

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