The investigative report on February’s massive hotel fire in Killeen has been released — but not without a fight.
For more than three weeks, Killeen city officials denied the Herald’s requests to view the report, which was completed on April 5.
Initially, the reason given was that the city was not required to release the report because no one had been charged and convicted in connection with the blaze. Later, the fire chief said it is customary not to release fire investigation reports when no cause has been determined.
Still, those are not explanations why the city could not release the report. Rather, they are excuses why they would not release it.
And when the Herald continued to press the city on the issue, officials turned the request over to the state attorney general’s office in an attempt to block access to the report.
Why shouldn’t the public know the details of the incident, as well as any factors that may have contributed to the blaze?
This was arguably the biggest fire in the city’s history, in terms of size and scope.
In addition, the blaze that consumed the four-story Hilton Garden Inn threatened the lives of hundreds of occupants who had packed the hotel in the midst of a dangerous winter storm event that left many Killeen-area residents without water or electricity at their homes.
Fortunately, through the professional actions of the city’s fire and police personnel, all of the guests were safely evacuated without serious injury.
No doubt, the outcome might have been far worse, given the magnitude of the fire, which started in the attic, between the structure’s roof and the fourth floor.
However, many hotel occupants lost their possessions, and one family lost a pet.
To deny the public access to the fire report based on a legal technicality or popular convention seemed too convenient. It’s almost as if the city was arguing that since there were no fatalities and no proof of criminal intent, this incident falls into the “no harm, no foul” category.
But an examination of the city’s 68-page document — released to the Herald on Friday afternoon after the newspaper previewed a Sunday article about the “secret report” — revealed some eye-opening findings.
Investigators learned that the hotel manager had been alerted to a fire alarm earlier in the day of the fire but didn’t smell any smoke upon investigation. He subsequently canceled a call for the incoming fire engine.
The manager said hotel staff frequently set the alarms to silent because of false alarms.
The day before the fire, hotel staff reported that fire system pipes froze and failed.
A hotel maintenance worker turned off the fire sprinkler riser to prevent water from flooding the lobby.
The hotel owner was in the hotel’s attic just hours before the fire, repairing a ladder. He told investigators he was onsite for about 30 minutes and was not welding.
The hotel manager told fire investigators that he tried to contact the hotel’s sprinkler and fire alarm maintenance company several times about making repairs, but was told they could not come out until the following week. However, the sprinkler company said they never received a call for service to repair the sprinkler system.
The hotel’s sprinkler and fire alarm system were last inspected in March 2020.
The fire marshal’s report found the fire’s cause could not be determined, and for good reason. Any evidence as to the cause likely burned up in the blaze. The report also notes the danger of a potential floor collapse, which made it unsafe for investigators to comb through the scene.
However, though the report is very thorough in many aspects, it does leave some unanswered questions.
For example, many hotel occupants reported hearing fire alarms going off during the week leading up to the fire. Each time, they were shut off after a few minutes. Were the fire alarms malfunctioning? Were they going off in response to occupants cooking in their rooms, which was also mentioned by several hotel evacuees after the fact?
A larger question is whether the recurrent sounding of the fire alarms was an isolated issue or connected to a larger problem regarding the hotel’s electrical system.
Also, there is the issue of low water pressure on the night of the fire.
Because of frozen pipes and pipe breaks around the city, Killeen was experiencing low water pressure as firefighters attempted to extinguish the three-hour blaze. As a result, water was diverted from Harker Heights, which eventually led to low-pressure issues there as well.
Yet these pressure challenges were not mentioned in the investigation report, as would have been expected.
The obvious question, then, is whether the city’s keeping the report under wraps was an attempt to minimize the city’s perceived liability in the incident. It’s possible the same may be true regarding the hotel owner and employees.
While this would be an understandable motivation, if true, it doesn’t excuse the need for transparency.
The city’s fire chief and fire marshal are paid with taxpayer money, and as such, taxpayers deserve to know what steps the city took in investigating the fire, and how officials reached their conclusions about the fire’s cause and origin.
It’s also somewhat surprising that Killeen’s elected officials failed to see the urgency about releasing the report.
And while some city council members had expressed an interest in seeing the fire investigation report themselves, prior to its release Friday, they were cautious about making its contents available to the public at-large.
It’s difficult to determine exactly who was behind the three-week effort to block the public release of the report — the city manager, the city attorney, the fire marshal, the fire chief, or perhaps several of these public officials.
It’s also hard to say who ultimately made the decision to grant the Herald access to it, although it was the fire chief who made the call to an editor announcing the planned release.
Regardless of how the report came out, the fact remains that it almost didn’t.
Had it not been for the Herald’s persistence and its announced preview of an in-depth story about the concealed report, it’s likely that this eye-opening document would remain locked up in a filing cabinet, with very few city staffers aware of its contents.
Killeen residents must be able to have confidence that the city is doing all it can to learn from this episode and avoid a future fire that could have a far more tragic outcome.
If the report had not been made public, residents would have lacked that assurance.
The city’s fire chief is to be commended for coming forward with the report. Regardless of its ultimate findings, this was an impactful and revealing document.
However, when it comes to future investigative reports on fires whose causes are inconclusive, the city must not hide behind technicalities and legal loopholes.
Residents deserve the truth about these fires, even it doesn’t neatly fit into an official narrative.
Anything less will look like a smokescreen — and that is simply not acceptable.