2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

AFTER LONG WAIT, BURNED VAN CONTENTS A DISAPPOINTMENT

Published: March 28, 2013, 12:01 pm, by Bill Vogrin
Ethelyn Bauer's 1998 van burned outside her home on Jan. 11, 2013. She struggled nearly 11 weeks to get access to it in the city impound lot where it was towed while fire officials investigated it for possible arson.

Ethelyn Bauer’s 1998 van burned outside her home on Jan. 11, 2013. She struggled nearly 11 weeks to get access to it in the city impound lot where it was towed while fire officials investigated it for possible arson.

.

After nearly 11 weeks of waiting, Ethelyn Bauer finally got to see what remained of her van, which burned in the street outside her Mountain Shadows home in the early hours of Jan. 11.

Unfortunately, the tools she had hoped to salvage Wednesday were mostly ruined. The interior of the 1998 van was a charred mess of grotesquely melted plastic after the predawn inferno.

Still, Ethelyn, 87, was satisfied she’d finally been able to see it for herself. And she was more than a little amazed Mayor Steve Bach had personally intervened to get it accomplished.

Burned Van 039.

Faithful Side Streets readers will recall I introduced you to Ethelyn in last Saturday’s column. She was frustrated because she felt blown off by Fire Department employees in her efforts to get access to the van after the fire. It had been towed to the city impound lot while arson investigators determined whether the fire was a crime.

Almost immediately, Ethelyn began calling the investigator seeking access to retrieve the tools for her son, who is a cabinet maker and handy man. Before long, she said, the arson investigator stopped returning her calls.

“The least they could do was return my calls,” she said. “But they couldn’t be bothered.”

Burned Van 040.

Eventually Ethelyn said she got a message to contact the district attorney’s office to get the vehicle released from impound. But the DA’s office couldn’t find the case and sent her back to the fire department.

Even more frustrating for Ethelyn was the refusal of the staff at the city impound lot to let her near her van.

“I just wanted my tools,” she said.

I began making calls on her behalf on Wednesday and by the next morning Ethelyn received a call from the city telling her the van had been released and was available for pickup.

Happy ending, right?

Not quite. Ethelyn arrived at the impound lot early Friday to collect her tools. But she was told she needed registration papers before she could get in.

Impound Lot 002 X.

“They burned up in the van,” she said. “And I sent registration papers to the insurance company when I filed my claim.”

Turned away, she tried again Monday, taking photocopies of her registration papers. But, again, she was turned away.

“They said they wouldn’t accept copies,” Ethelyn said. “I had to get originals back from the insurance company.”

She couldn’t understand why no one at the city would help her.

Turns out Bach wanted to help.

In fact, the mayor sprang into action Saturday morning after reading of her plight.

“I called Ms. Bauer this morning and apologized for her experience with our Fire Department,” Bach told me in an email Saturday.

Then he asked Fire Chief Rich Brown to look into the issue of the van.

“We want to be the most business- and citizen-friendly city in the country and are pursuing initiatives on many fronts to get there,” Bach said. “We’re working hard to change the culture in our city government from a regulatory-agency mindset to a customer service-driven approach.  Incidents like this are very frustrating and are not acceptable.”

That was Saturday. When I told the mayor that Ethelyn was denied access again Monday, his own frustration was reflected in his response.

Next thing I knew, Police Chief Pete Carey was on the phone with me.

The chief was investigating how his impound lot crew was dealing with Ethelyn and promised to reunite her with the contents of her van. The city secured permission from Ethelyn’s insurance company and at 8 a.m. she finally got to see what was left of the van.

Fire investigators Tim Spear and Nancy Gosch remove roof racks from Evelyn Bauer's burned up van.

Fire investigators Tim Spear and Nancy Gosch remove roof racks from Evelyn Bauer’s burned up van.

.

Mostly, the visit was anti-climactic. Fire Capt. Ray Johnson and fire investigators Tim Spears and Nancy Gosch pried open a side door and helped sort through the mess. They salvaged a few things: a broom, a mop, plungers, a hand saw, a steel ruler, tape measures and other odds and ends. They even climbed atop the van and removed roof racks for Ethelyn.

And they explained in great detail how they believed the fire started in the engine, which had recently been rebuilt, and spread through the wiring harness inside the van, through the roof and even burning out the tail lights.

Ethelyn Bauer and her burned up van.

Ethelyn Bauer and her burned up van.

.

Ethelyn seemed slightly confused that more tools were not found inside. Again, the investigators detailed how the van was photographed when it was impounded and its contents inventoried.

“I’m sorry it was such a disappointment,” Ethelyn said. “We didn’t really get anything out.

“If I’d known this weeks ago, I never would have bothered.”

And I think that is the point the mayor was making when he called Ethelyn and apologized for what he viewed as poor customer service by the city.

Ethelyn certainly is impressed.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I still can’t believe I got a call from the mayor. And then from the fire chief. I could hardly think straight.”

 

The interior of Ethelyn Bauer's burned out fan was a charred mess of grotesquely melted plastic.

The interior of Ethelyn Bauer’s burned out fan was a charred mess of grotesquely melted plastic.

========================