Fort Worth Fire Department turns control of Sandman Hotel over to property owners

The Fort Worth Fire Department has stepped back from leading the investigation into the Jan. 8 explosion at the Sandman Signature Hotel and turned control of the property over to the hotel’s owner, Northland Properties, officials said.

The fire department investigated the criminal and public safety aspects of the explosion on behalf of the city. The initial investigation “revealed no indication of a criminal nexus or a recurring public safety concern,” fire officials said in a letter Wednesday to interested parties including the defendants and plaintiffs in lawsuits related to the explosion.

Fort Worth Fire Department spokesperson Craig Trojacek told the Star-Telegram on Saturday that the department’s investigation isn’t complete. It’s stepping back so other parties can conduct investigations needed for the multiple civil lawsuits connected with the explosion, which authorities have said was linked to a natural gas leak believed to have started in or near the basement.

“It’s going to be a collaborative effort,” Trojacek said of the ongoing investigation.

“Investigators with the Fort Worth Fire Department Arson and Bomb Division will continue monitoring the progress of the investigation, including all site examinations, as an interested party,” the letter says.

The investigation into the exact origin and cause of the blast is expected to be complicated and lengthy. If at any point anything is uncovered to indicate the explosion was caused by or involved “criminal intent,” the fire department will take the investigation back over, according to Trojacek.

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The fire department’s letter states that the other parties should coordinate their investigations and reach agreements on issues including access to the site and handling of evidence, “affording an opportunity for all to investigate the incident and to protect their respective interests.”

On Thursday, Northland Properties filed a court document indicating the hotel owner has reached an agreement with natural gas supplier Atmos in regard to preserving evidence at the scene of the explosion. The Rule 11 agreement has been filed in every lawsuit in which Northland and Atmos are parties, including a suit in which Atmos has sought to place the blame on the hotel owner.

The document states that Northland and Atmos anticipate working with other parties, including the attorneys for injured employees and guests who are suing, to agree on plans for a joint investigation.

According to the terms of the Rule 11 agreement, Northland won’t take any action or permit any entity under its control to do anything “that would alter, modify, or destroy any condition or item currently existing in the basement area of the building” without giving Atmos written notice three business days in advance.

Atmos agreed not to take any action to “alter, modify, or destroy” the gas line “that runs along 8th Street between Houston and Throckmorton Streets and the supply line branching off that line to supply gas to the Hotel” without providing Northland with written notice three business days in advance.

Atmos representatives can participate in investigations of the hotel’s first floor and basement conducted by Northland or “any representative or expert for any other party in the lawsuits in which this Rule 11 Agreement is filed.”

Atmos won’t be allowed to access the hotel except for the reasons mentioned in the agreement, written permission by Northland or by court order.

Northland representatives can participate in Atmos’ investigation of its hotel gas supply line.

The final stipulation of the agreement is that “Atmos Energy shall withdraw or nonsuit its currently pending request for injunctive relief in this case,” according to the document.

Atmos Energy wrapped up its initial investigation into the explosion on Jan. 12 and said it found no evidence that its lines or equipment caused the blast. In spite of those findings, Atmos has been named as a defendant in at least nine lawsuits filed on behalf of 33 plaintiffs. The hotel owners’ insurance company has also made several claims against Atmos related to the explosion, according to the lawsuit Atmos filed against Northland.

According to Atmos, someone at the Sandman hotel called the gas company to report a leak about 11 minutes before the blast. The Atmos representative told the caller to evacuate the building, but there’s no evidence the hotel staff tried to follow those instructions, the company’s lawsuit against Northland Properties states. Atmos argues that the leak originated inside the building, for which the property owner is responsible.

The lawsuit filed in Tarrant County asked the court to declare that Atmos holds no liability for the explosion. As part of the agreement, Atmos withdrew its request for the court to stop the fire department from releasing control of the scene to Northland.

In another one of the lawsuits, a Dallas County judge on Jan. 12 signed a temporary restraining order preventing cleanup of debris at the Sandman Signature Hotel to preserve evidence due to a lawsuit from José Mira, an employee of the basement-level Musume restaurant who was injured in the explosion.

The restraining order was originally granted for one week, but was later extended. It expired on Friday.