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Federal agency investigating downtown fire

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Posted: Monday, May 10, 2004 10:00 pm

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is now investigating a three-alarm fire that destroyed a downtown business last week.

Six federal investigators were at the South Sacramento Street site Monday, and an electrical engineer was expected to arrive from Maryland later in the day, said Fire Engineer Michael Harden, one of the lead Lodi investigators.

"We decided this is beyond us, let's get some help out here," he said.

"There are things beyond us we can't answer."

The first group of ATF investigators called Lodi and offered their assistance after completing their investigation into a church fire in South Sacramento. The blaze was ruled arson.

It isn't normal for the agency to get involved in Lodi fires, Fire Marshall Verne Person said. In this case, though, the ATF can use federal funds and also has more expertise, he added.

They are working in tandem with Lodi fire investigators.

Rashid Imports, 27 S. Sacramento St., began smoking minutes after 5 p.m. last Tuesday, and it erupted in flames more than an hour later. The inferno raged for hours, and firefighters were still spraying water on hot spots the following morning.

A week later, the block remains closed. A pile of debris sits in the lot next door to where the two-story building once offered boots and clothing for sale. Burned rubbish litters the now-open basement and charred boots have been shucked aside.

Damages have been estimated at $1.3 million to $1.4 million, the Lodi Fire Department said.

Reached by telephone Monday at the Rashid home, the son of business owner Fayeq Rashid said no decisions had been made about what to do with the business. The elder Rashid, who arrived on scene after the fire started and was then taken to the hospital with chest pains, is out of the hospital and doing better, his son said. His name was unavailable.

Fires with high monetary loss are often investigated by the ATF, said spokeswoman Marti McKee. The agency also investigates most commercial and church fires, as well as fires involving fatalities.

The ATF will take over most of the investigation, Person said, though the Lodi Fire Department will still be involved. It will also give them a chance to learn from the federal investigators, he said.

By Monday, firefighters had cleared debris from the first and second floors and had reached the basement, where the fire is believed to have started. No cause has been determined.

"The way our investigators approach the fire scene is with a completely open mind so they can look at it and do an unbiased investigation," McKee said. "They don't even want to know if it's suspicious."

Rubble and debris are all that are left of Rashid Imports. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Fire investigations typically take two or three days, McKee said. Investigators work to find the fire's origin and cause, and they can also do forensics work at a lab in the Bay Area.

In the past, Lodi fires have generally been investigated by the Lodi Fire Department. If the fire is suspicious and possible suspects are interviewed, police usually help, Lt. Virgil Monroe of the Lodi Police Department said.

This isn't the first time the ATF has been to Lodi, but most occasions have been to assist police or carry out their own firearms or bomb investigations.

"The advantage is that they've got their own labs and expertise," Monroe said.

In January, ATF agents helped the Lodi SWAT team search a Woodbridge home after police arrested a convicted felon who was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded handgun.

News-Sentinel staff writer Jennifer Pearson Bonnett contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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