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Digging into the Madison Fire Department's report on the Underground Kitchen fire
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Spontaneous combustion of oily cloths at restaurants are not uncommon.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

On February 2, the Madison Fire Department completed its official report on the fire at 24 N. Webster St. that took place in the early morning hours of June 30, 2011. While the official cause remains "undetermined," the presumed cause was self-heating of restaurant towels, which investigators were "unable to rule out," according to the department's news release.

Through an open records request, Isthmus obtained the 158-page department report on the fire, which elucidates the sequence of events that led to the destruction of the building that contained 24 apartments housing 27 residents, the Underground Kitchen restaurant and Muse hair salon. (An accompanying Madison Police Department report runs 21 pages.)

The report contains statements on the fire from responding firefighters, resident/witness interviews, background on the building from the owner and maintenance man, the fire scene exam, weather conditions on the day of the fire, photos of fire and damage, information on evidence sent to a Wisconsin state crime lab and the results of the lab's analysis, other items found on the scene such as cash boxes from the businesses, reports on the building's fire alarm system, floor plans/diagrams of the building, and copies of Madison media reports on the fire.

In short, the report indicates this: restaurant cloths and aprons with some oil remaining in them after washing, and still hot from the drier, were placed together and, aided by oxygen from a draft from a pipe chase/ventilation shaft, spontaneously combusted at some time after they were placed in a crate on a wooden chair in the wait station. The fire traveled primarily up that chase to the roof. The state crime lab's analysis of the charred cloth did not find any ignitable liquids nor any saturated, unsaturated, or polyunsaturated fatty acids in the items analyzed but, the report notes, "Failure to recover and detect any fatty acids from the debris does not eliminate the possibility that oils with a high tendency to undergo spontaneous heating were present prior to the fire."

In his initial examination of the fire scene, MFD investigator Capt. Bradley Olson notes the most extensive fire damage on each floor is adjacent to a vertical pipe chase that ran the entire length of the building from its origin in the ceiling of the Underground Kitchen (in the basement level) to the roof. This is consistent with statements from the first firefighters on the scene who found the walls outside the pipe chase to be hot to the touch.

"Upon visual examining of these shafts looking down from the roof, I was able to see a flashlight, which had been placed on top of the freezer located in the Underground Kitchen," Olson writes.

Olson's examination of the burn patterns within the pipe chase indicated that the fire started at the lower level and moved upward.

Olson's examination of the restaurant showed little heat or flame damage in the bar area (the left side of the restaurant as one would face the building from Mifflin St.), the kitchen/prep area (left side rear), or the dining room (right side, front); however, in a wait station on the right side in the rear of the building, Olson "observed extensive heat, flame, smoke and water damage. I observed two (2) storage racks, of which both were extensively damaged by heat, flame and smoke."

Within the wait station was what Olson describes as a "bulkhead" which had an opening directly over the top of the cooler/freezer, which was underneath the pipe chase to the roof, and "while completing an inspection of the chase at the roof level, I felt an updraft of cool air coming from this opening."

Within the wait station, Olson located a wooden chair damaged by fire and on top of it "fire debris" (portions of plaster ceiling) and under that "towels, damaged by fire." Towels "showed evidence of heating on the exterior," notes Olson, "and further examination of the interior pile, observed the towels were discolored brown." Brown discoloration is a characteristic of cloth that has ignited through spontaneous combustion due to oily residue.

In an interview that took place July 13, 2011, with Underground Kitchen employee Caleb Campbell, his attorney, Capt. Olson, and Madison Police detective Mary Copeland, Campbell explained that on the evening of June 29 and early morning hours of June 30, he had been laundering towels and aprons in the laundry facility that was in the basement level of the Capitol Hill apartments and the very rear of the restaurant space. The laundry was completed about 1:30 a.m. on June 30.

"Campbell states he had washed the towels in cold water with one (1) cup of bleach and washed the aprons with one (1) cup of detergent and hot water. He added he used both washers, however, used only one (1) dryer to dry both towels and aprons on 'normal' setting. Campbell estimated washing and drying 15-20 towels and 4-5 aprons that evening," reads the report. (In another police interview, Underground Kitchen co-owner Kris Noren states that the laundering procedure for washing towels was to use hot water "but indicated that the hot water that feeds into the laundry room is not very hot. Noren used the word 'tepid' to describe the temperature of the water.")

"Campbell states at around 1:30 a.m., he removed the towels from the dryer, placed into a plastic 'black' create [sic] and taken to the wait station area. He added while removing the towels from the dryer, he described them as 'kinda warm.' Campbell described the 'create' [sic] typically being used to bring back produce from the Farmers Market," the report continues.

"Campbell stated he didn't recall smelling any unusual odors after taking the towels and aprons from the dryer with the exception of smelling 'clean.' Campbell stated towels that had 'excessive' amounts of oil are thrown out in the laundry room. He stated the towels and aprons are exposed to grape seed oil, olive oil and butter," concludes the interview with Campbell.

Campbell left Underground Kitchen at around that same 1:30 a.m. time, according to the report, at which point bartender Hastings Cameron and "a few customers" were still present.

Hastings Cameron was the last Underground Kitchen employee on site that morning. From a brief interview with Cameron at the fire scene, presumably on June 30, the morning of the fire (the report states the conversation took place June 29, apparently in error), MPD detective Mary Copeland states that Cameron "indicated to me that he worked in the restaurant until after 3 a.m. doing standard closing procedures and he had returned to the restaurant where he came in the front door and left a couple of empty beer kegs on a ramp to be picked up by delivery trucks the next day to exchange the empty kegs for full ones. Hastings initially told me that he didn't notice anything unusual but then said when he was wiping down the countertop/bar area he recalled smelling something funny, which he described 'like paint or plaster smell.' Hastings also used the term 'chemical smell.'"

In a follow-up interview on July 1, 2011, again with Detective Copeland, Cameron walked Copeland through what happened from closing time to the time he left the facility. All "people/patrons were out of the bar area by approximately 1:55 a.m.," according to the interview.

Cameron had some dinner, did a count of the till, wiped down the bar side, and put together a prep list for the next day's cooking. Copeland asks about smoking.

"I asked Hastings if he smokes cigarettes or tobacco products and Hastings indicated that he describes himself as an 'intermittent' smoker. He explained, 'I had maybe three in the past few weeks and I did not smoke anything that night.' Hastings stated that he had been dealing with a sinus infection over the past couple of weeks and due to that he would not have had any cigarettes," according to the report.

The report continues: "Hastings estimated it was around 3:30-3:45 a.m. he left the restaurant and walked to get his car, parked a few blocks away. Hastings explained that earlier in the evening he placed a couple of the empty kegs into his car as there was no other place to store them. Hastings said he pulled up in his car in front of the restaurant sometime around 3:45/4 a.m. and he went through the front door near the ramp, placed the two empty kegs on the ramp and then locked the front door."

Copeland attempts to clarify Cameron's initial description of a funny smell from her prior interview. "Hastings told me that he believed he was approximately 20 feet from the walk in cooler area and he smelled what he described as a 'construction site type plaster dust or paint smell' and it was probably between 3:00 and 3:45 a.m. prior to his leaving. Hastings was not able to give me any further descriptors regarding the smell. Hastings indicated he did not notice anything unusual and did not feel alarmed about the smell as he knew there would be people coming back into the restaurant in the morning along with a cleaning person who would be arriving about 10 a.m.," the report concludes.

The first call to 911 about the fire came in at 5:01 a.m. from a US Cellular number that has since been disconnected. Capt. Olson says the first three 911 calls were from residents, who were apparently initially awakened either by fire noise or smoke, not smoke detectors going off or the building alarm.

When firefighters arrived on the scene they noted smoke rising from the roof. A resident let them into the apartment side of the building, and firefighters did not see smoke or flames until the third (top) floor, where there smoke and flames were dropping down into the hallway from the roof (attic), according to the report. Elsewhere in the report, it is stated that there was a "light haze, no visible fire" on the first floor and the third floor was experiencing "thick, darker smoke" and "active fire in the hallway, ceiling, approx. half way down in the center of the hallway."

Lt. Thomas Schaller was one of the first firefighters to go into the restaurant area about twenty to thirty minutes after the fire department arrived on the scene. "Schaller stated the smoke had banked about halfway down," according to the fire department report, but he observed fire in an area around a chair in a waiter service area. Schaller stated that "it was not a heavy fire."

Other parts of the report establish that there had not been any recent renovations going on either in the apartments or the restaurant, and that there were no problem smokers among the apartment residents.

Spontaneous combustion of oily cloths at restaurants are not uncommon; a similar scenario apparently took place in a recent fire at a Dairy Queen in Missouri, in which towels that had been washed but not thoroughly enough to remove all the oil, then dried, and then stored while still warm, caused a fire. An oft-cited study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that less than 3% residue of vegetable oil left could generate spontaneous combustion.

The official MFD report does not lay out a specific timeline for when the rags might have initially combusted nor how long it took for the fire to travel to the roof.

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