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Criticism plagues officials after Galleria mall arson

Others believe they did all they could
By: Lien Hoang, The Press Tribune
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They have long since finished fighting the arson and weapons threats at the Galleria Mall. But for untold days to come, emergency responders – particularly Roseville police – will fight accusations that they mishandled the crisis that caused upward of $55 million in damages. Officials have stressed that no injuries or deaths came of the inferno that gutted 20 stores and shut down the shopping center for a week. “Those of us that were there … we have a better understanding of what went on,” Roseville fire chief Dennis Mathisen said in an interview Monday. “What the media is promoting ... much of it is speculation and uneducated commentary.” He said the priorities on Oct. 21 – when Alexander Piggee allegedly torched the mall, forcing a mass evacuation – were lives and safety, followed by property, and then the environment. “I think they made the right call,” said Cristle Belgarde, of Rocklin. “I support whatever decision they made because they’re the professionals. I just don’t think the criticism should be there, it’s not fair.” But critics assert authorities should be held accountable for not doing more. They allege police barred firefighters from battling the flames, which began in a second-story GameStop in the mall around 10:22 a.m. The inferno seemed contained until a little before 1:45 p.m., when black smoke burst back into the sky, eventually bringing down portions of the mall roof. Some believe the blaze would not have spread so catastrophically if sprinklers had been left on and firefighters had been permitted inside sooner. The City of Roseville has confirmed that sprinklers were shut off temporarily. “It infuriates me,” Tommy Glensor, 54, of Roseville said. “What really pisses me off is, Roseville police and fire were making excuses, ‘Well, you weren’t there and you don’t do our job.’” Glensor said he has room to talk: He’s a retired peace officer who spent 28 years working in the Folsom prison system. From his experiencing neutralizing riots and explosives, Glensor said authorities at the Galleria did not respond quickly or prudently. Officials said they erred on the side of caution because Piggee discarded a backpack in GameStop, declaring it contained a bomb. Police said witnesses smelled chemicals from the bag, but Piggee later took back the threat. A gun that he also claimed to have never materialized. “How do you protect against that?” said Jim Dunham, 73, of Rocklin. “It looks to me it was as good as they could have done. I hate to see them sitting out there with the fire going on, but they think there’s a bomb, so what can you do?” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would not comment on “evidentiary items” left in the rubble, but declared the mall no longer a crime scene Oct. 27, clearing the way for the first round of stores to reopen Oct. 28. Many have expressed shock that one man, a 22-year-old who lost his job and home, could have caused multi-million-dollar damages. A subgroup of those people say Piggee, who faces felony arson and criminal threats charges, was never a danger to be taken seriously. “I don’t understand, if they had guns drawn on the suspect, why didn’t they arrest him right there? Why? Why?” said Janna Curtis, 45, of Citrus Heights. “And I don’t want to hear, ‘I can’t answer that because the investigation is pending.’” It appeared to Curtis that authorities smoked out the suspect, who told CBS 13 that the flames got to be too much for him. Curtis said officials responded too slowly and lost control of the situation. If critics are right, it is unclear why police prevented firefighters from diving into the flames. Glensor said he would have happily volunteered. “If Roseville police and fire don’t understand they’re in a dangerous occupation, get out of that occupation and get a teacher job or something,” he said. As Curtis feared, officials have cited the ongoing investigation in declining comment. They would not speak about the circumstances around the arrest or the sprinkler system. They also would not release dispatch logs from the day of the fires. City spokeswoman Megan MacPherson said they would tell all in the form of an after-action report, which will come at the end of the investigation in a couple months. “There are so many unanswered questions,” Curtis said. Lien Hoang can be reached at lienh@goldcountrymedia.com.