Everett chief not drunk at fatal fire, investigation finds

Everett Fire Chief Murray Gordon.

Everett Fire Chief Murray Gordon.

EVERETT — Fire Chief Murray Gordon drank a glass of cabernet at a restaurant before the New Year’s Eve fire along W. Casino Road, but he was not intoxicated, according to an outside investigation paid for by the city.

The longtime chief, 61, admitted that his actions that night may have shown “poor judgment” and “may not have been prudent,” according to the report. No disciplinary action is planned but the union says the controversy highlights the need for rules that apply to everyone, regardless of rank.

The fire at the Bluffs apartments was one of the biggest blazes in Everett in years. The chief arrived as his crews were already fighting the fire, and may have been anxious about how to jump in and help, the investigation found.

Gordon has been with the department nearly 40 years and has been fire chief since 2001.

He was quoted in a city news release on Monday as saying he was looking forward to putting questions about his conduct that night behind him.

The city on Monday released the 28-page report compiled by the Summit Law Group of Seattle. The investigation cost $13,000. It was ordered after at least three Everett firefighters complained about the chief’s behavior at the fire scene.

In a prepared statement, Mayor Ray Stephanson said he was “pleased that the investigation has exonerated Chief Gordon.”

The investigator determined there was “no credible evidence” that the chief was intoxicated or impaired. Gordon had ordered a bottle of wine to share with dinner companions. He had one glass and had poured a second glass when he was called to the fire about 7 p.m. Someone else at the table ended up drinking his second glass, witnesses reported.

Gordon went home to change and get his fire department vehicle, according to public records obtained by The Herald.

Because questions about his sobriety that night weren’t raised for days there was no blood or breath test taken that evening.

Instead, the law firm interviewed 23 witnesses, nearly all of whom reported no obvious signs that Gordon was intoxicated. The witnesses included firefighters, police officers and chaplains who were on scene that night, as well as people who had been with him at dinner in south Everett.

At least three police officers who interacted with Gordon that night said he didn’t seem intoxicated.

City policies say that employees must not show up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The policy doesn’t define when someone is considered intoxicated. City employees can be fired if they come to work with a blood-alcohol content of .04 — half of the legal limit to drive.

The firefighters union, Local 46, and the chief have a history of clashes. The union accused the city of a double standard for keeping Gordon at work during the investigation. Anyone else likely would have been put on paid leave.

Union President Paul Gagnon on Monday said that administrators should be held to the same standards as employees, and the recent issues highlight problems that need correcting.

Firefighters support a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol in the workplace, he said.

“Such a policy should apply equally to the fire department’s top officers who are charged with on-call duties or responding to an active emergency,” Gagnon said. “The public and the firefighters who serve and protect them expect nothing less.”

Gordon voluntarily assumed command at the fire scene for about 30 minutes. That meant he coordinated different tasks at the scene while a battalion chief focused on firefighting.

At one point, Gordon went to McDonald’s and got hamburgers and fries for the crews and for families who were displaced. There were still flames in the apartment building, but overall the fire was winding down by then.

It was unusual for the fire chief to take on a command role at a fire, the report notes. Many other members of the department’s command staff were out of town for the holiday, and the fire was one of the largest in all of the firefighters’ careers.

The chief was trying to be helpful in a complex situation, the attorneys found.

Two battalion chiefs who worked the fire complained that the chief smelled of alcohol and appeared to have trouble making decisions that night, according to public records. The two battalion chiefs did not think Gordon was impaired to the point where he was unsteady on his feet. Rather, they said he seemed hesitant, anxious and confused. There also was some disagreement on the way Gordon took over the scene. He had not received some of the recent training that others did on that sort of operation.

Only one witness, a fire captain, reported that the chief was slurring his words. That allegation didn’t jibe with statements from other witnesses or the recording of the emergency radio traffic from that night.

The attorneys wrote that they found the slurring allegation was not credible. They asked the fire captain to demonstrate how the chief spoke that night. They said the firefighter performed a “credible imitation” of Foster Brooks, a comedian who was renowned for playing a lovable drunk in the 1970s.

The fire killed one man, injured a dozen other people and displaced about 130. The city has ordered the property owner to install fire alarms after finding code violations on site. It also has ordered inspections at more than two dozen apartment complexes in Everett that may have similar alarm problems.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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