Richard Ferris wants justice for the fire that took his store.
It’s been near two years since the fire destroyed his business, but The Sub co-owner Richard Ferris hasn’t forgotten. The sooted walls of the popular curio shop, which burned to the ground during the early hours of Dec. 26, 2015 are still standing; a decision made in part because Ferris is still investigating.
After an unremitting stalemate with the San Luis Obispo Fire Department, Ferris has taken matters into his own hands. He is in the process of producing a documentary that he hopes will shed light on an alleged cover up within the department, including arson and negligent firefighting. The film, titled “Burn Down,” compiles footage from that day, along with testimonies from former employees of The Sub.
Ferris began to suspect arson the morning of the fire. According to Ferris and several other employees, a man who claimed to be an “off-duty” fireman alerted them to the fire in their store. Then, he was gone.
“We had an off-duty fireman, right after the fire started, stick his head into The Sub and told us all to get out,” Ferris said. “And then he asked us about the building next door — our warehouse, Square Deal — if anyone was inside it, and almost no one knows we have a warehouse next door.”
The fire at The Sub began at 10:46 a.m. By 1 p.m. it had spread to the connecting warehouse, Square Deal Recordings and Supplies. Few news reports mentioned Square Deal, which has since reopened in a location down the street but only houses a fraction of what it once offered.
“We consider Square Deal the main fire, and The Sub the secondary fire,” Ferris said. “Even though [The Sub] started it, [The Sub] was the one that was not as financially damaging, whereas the fire in Square Deal took away 40 years of our life and we can never recover.”
Square Deal opened in 1971 as a major electronics manufacturing retailer to record stores, comic book shops, libraries, and collectors. It specialized in out-of-print, discontinued and hard to find recordings and comics. Only about a fifth of the suppliers were covered by insurance, Ferris said.
Ferris estimates Square Deal’s fire cost up to $7 million in damage, and most of it can never be replaced. Ferris said around 200,000 cassettes and 300,000 comics survived the flames, a fact that would be something to rejoice over if not for another calamity: their index keys burned in the fire. The cassettes and comics are locked in boxes in trucks, but Ferris needs the index keys to tell him what’s where.
“It’s just like not having them,” he said.
Graphic by Lauren Roberge
Was it arson?
Employees at The Sub gave a description of the “off-duty fireman,” but he is yet to be found. The documentary claims that many arsonists are often connected — on some level — to firefighting. However, less than 0.1 percent of all firefighters, including volunteers, are arrested for arson according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Ferris said the fire department refused to offer him an arson investigation and turned the property back over to him two days later.
“We had no idea why this was happening, why no one would give us an investigation,” Ferris said. “Even when we did a documentary and showed them all this evidence, they just refused to consider it.”
The fire department has a different story, though. San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Garret Olson maintains that the department intended to do a thorough interior investigation, but needed to make sure there were no safety hazards before continuing. He said Ferris asked them not to move anything as Ferris’ party was planning their own investigation, and wanted the evidence untouched.
“There was no credible evidence of an arson fire—that this was a crime scene,” Olson said. “It was occupied at the time that it happened. While there were witnesses that we still wanted to talk with, nobody was making any allegations that this was a crime scene. And so I made the decision to preserve the integrity of the scene out of respect for the building owner’s request so that their arson investigator could come in representing either the building owner or the building owner’s insurance company.”
Video by Nicole Peterson
He said, he said
The documentary asserts two incendiary devices were used to instigate and propel the fire: one placed on a trashcan and the other on the building’s thermoplastic polyolefin roof. Based on the evidence presented in the film, mechanical engineering assistant professor Richard Emberley, who has a double masters in both fire protection engineering and structural engineering as well as a Ph.D that combines them both, finds arson an unlikely cause.
His reasoning? Plastic, both from the trash can’s lid and the thin membrane material atop of the roof.
“The trash can is right next to the flames and has a plastic lid so it’s giving off a lot of energy and is heating up the top of plastic lid,” Emberley said. “In my opinion, there was no incendiary device — it’s just a plastic trash can. And you can see that a lot of it was plastic because when they show you where the trash can is, it’s just kind of like a pool.”
Aside from arson, the documentary claims the fire department did very little to stop the fire, including cutting a series of holes in the roof but not going inside to fight it at its seat. Olson said cutting holes in roofs serve to release smoke and heat, and prevents the continued lateral spread of super heated gases. He added that standard protocol, however, suggests crews also go in and fight what’s called an “aggressive interior attack.”
Olson said his crews were able to enter the building safely and were in there for at least 20 minutes, until they found “breaches in the firewall” and retreated. Firewalls are walls that are built to block fires from all directions.
The fire continued to burn for longer than 11 hours while crews fought defensively from outside.
“The firefighters had actually gone in with supplies and equipment so that they could sustain a long firefight, but the conditions changed so rapidly that they dropped all of their equipment,” Olson said. “They could not see anything and literally had to follow the hose hand over hand to find their way out; it was, quite literally, a scramble for them to get out before it was too late.”
Video by Annie Vainshtein
Olson said that in typical fire service, mixing offensive and defensive strategies — fighting from within and outside — is a “no-no,” but The Sub’s fire was an exception. He cited the lack of fireblocking — wooden studs positioned horizontally to prevent the vertical spread of fire, in this case, from the first floor to the attic — as a reason for its rapid spread. A reality, he said, that no firefighter would ever want.
“It’s actually really really difficult to pull firefighters back out of the building and fight the fire from the outside,” Olson said. “That is, it feels like a loss in more ways than just the obvious ways; firefighters don’t like to see a building continue to burn. They are very, very aggressive, not risk-averse people and if I had gotten on scene and told them to keep running inside, it would have been playing to their preferences, probably.”
That’s not what Ferris thinks.
“All [the fire department] does now is show up and protect the neighboring properties,” he said. “That’s what they’ve redefined their job as. Their job is no longer saving property; they’ll save lives, but they no longer feel it’s their responsibility to save your property because it’s just too dangerous for firemen.”
Olson acknowledged this as he explained the department’s risk management plan. Property is indeed at the bottom of their priority list. Olson said firemen will risk their lives for “savable lives” and only a little bit for “savable property.”
“We’re not going to risk our lives at all for that which is already lost,” he said.
What Olson admitted is precisely where he and Ferris agree. Property doesn’t come first under firemen’s hierarchy needs. But for Ferris, the line between property and a life may be easier drawn than felt.
According to assistant city attorney Jon Ansolabehere, Ferris and others affiliated with the Sub filed four claims in total but have missed their chance to file for an investigation against the city. The statute of limitations passed as of March 20, 2017.
Plans to rebuild The Sub are still up in the air, Ansolabehere said. He said the city has been working with Ferris to get plans drawn and submitted for its repairs, but they have not received ‘enough sufficient drawing’ in order for the city to move forward with a building permit.
“We actively work with property owners to give them the opportunity to fix it,” he said. “We don’t want to be heavy handed but at some point, the building will need to be repaired, the sidewalk will need to be opened up and there are businesses and other community members that are affected by the condition of this property.”
Rebuilding decades worth of life
Earth science junior Cynthia Davis worked in customer service at Square Deal from March 2016 to December 2016. Davis said the lack of reporting on Square Deal confused her and other employees, and continues to add insult to injury.
Graphic by Mariam Alamshahi
“I’ve seen people even cry at work,” she said. “The fire was really hard on [the Ferris family], and they’re still dealing with it. I can’t imagine—their whole livelihood just burning and the community says it’s their fault.”
Davis said she doesn’t anticipate the feud ending anytime soon, at least not until there is ‘serious proof.’
“The people that work at Square Deal and own Square Deal are really nice, good, kind people—and I’m sure the fire department is too,” she said. “I think that everybody involved has the best of intentions and I think it’s really unfortunate the way that everything is panning out but I wish everybody could be more rational and less hateful.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Richard Emberley had a Ph.D in civil engineering. This has been corrected to a Ph.D that combines both fire protection engineering and structural engineering.