Residents blame tear gas used in standoff for Margate fire
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Residents blame tear gas used in standoff for Margate fire

Florida Sun-Sentinel | March 16, 2005

Margate -- In the aftermath of Sunday's fatal police standoff, the Broward Sheriff's Office is investigating whether tear gas canisters that a SWAT team fired into an apartment building sparked a fire that left at least 100 people homeless.

"We believe this product was used properly by our SWAT Team," Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo said Monday, adding that the professional compliance unit will review the incident to ensure the tear gas is safe.

"We are still looking into whether the tear gas projectile started this fire, but we are leaning towards not," she said.

The state fire marshal will make the final determination.

After the standoff, a maintenance worker found on the street outside an 8-inch silver casing from a tear gas canister labeled with clear warnings: "possesses fire potential" and "outdoor use only."

The discovery of the spent casing left many residents of Cross Creek Apartments blaming Sheriff's Office deputies for starting the blaze when they fired tear gas projectiles into the rear window of a second-story apartment.

The flammable warning on the casing meant the gun that fired the tear gas might have a muzzle flash, like many firearms, that could drop a spark at the deputy's feet, Calzadilla-Fiallo said. That's why the device should not be discharged indoors, and wasn't, she said.

The SWAT team fired the tear gas 25 yards away from the apartment, as directed by the manufacturer, sending the non-flammable projectile inside, Calzadilla-Fiallo said.

"When it says that, it means not to stand in a room and shoot it," said Chic Daniel, who works in California and served on the Los Angeles police SWAT team for 12 years. He now goes to law enforcement agencies to teach classes that cover the use of tear gas. "It certainly sounds like [the Broward Sheriff's Office] did everything correctly," Daniel said.

The fire capped a seven-hour standoff that began when police say a security guard fired 13 bullets into his ex-girlfriend's window at about 10 a.m. Sunday, before barricading himself inside his apartment across a courtyard.

Investigators determined the man, who has not been officially identified but is thought to be Dan Magno, 40, shot himself in the head, Calzadilla-Fiallo said.

Police early Monday removed a charred body that matches Magno's description, but have not yet positively identified the remains.

Cross Creek Apartments is a cluster of 13 buildings just east of Route 441, near Southgate Boulevard.

Frank Dort, 52, the maintenance worker who found the tear gas casing labeled flammable and lives next door to Magno's building, said he saw the fire start moments after deputies fired a round of tear gas.

"There was a boom and white smoke came out," from the tear gas, Dort said. "Then, about 30 seconds later, black smoke came out."

The smoke quickly thickened and flames consumed almost the entire upper wing of Building 10, where Magno lived.

Tear gas canisters do heat up when releasing gas, but the device the Sheriff's Office used doesn't get hotter than 170 degrees, Calzadilla-Fiallo said, referencing material from the manufacturer.

However, Robert J. Castelli, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said all tear gas presents the potential for fire.

"I don't know if there is any tear gas that is not flammable," he said in a telephone interview from New York. "Even if the heat of the canister would not normally start a fire, landing on the right material can cause a fire to ignite."

The manufacturer of the tear gas, Armor Holdings Inc. of Casper, Wyo., declined to comment about the casing with the flammable label, deferring to the Sheriff's Office. Calzadilla-Fiallo said the company told investigators Monday they sold 8,000 of the projectiles to law enforcement agencies last year and did not have a single incident of fire.

The fire is the third at Cross Creek Apartments since August 2004. Fire officials could not determine Monday when the building was last inspected, according to Fire Rescue Division Chief Garrison Westbrook.

The building, dating from the late 1960s or early 1970s, did not have full firewalls separating the apartments, allowing the fire to spread quickly. Buildings that old are not required to, unless they go through major renovations, Westbrook said.

Monday morning, residents were allowed to return to their apartments and take what could be salvaged. Of the 24 units in the building, four had been gutted by fire and eight more suffered extensive water damage, leaving at least half the building uninhabitable, according to residents and the Red Cross.

"It's all wet," said Damian Vasquez, 22, standing in front of eight suitcases and garbage bags filled with his and his four roommates' clothes. "The furniture is broken, everything."

At least 30 people were staying in a Red Cross shelter at the Margate Community Center, and officials were expecting more.

As people there tried to sort out their lives, a picture began to emerge of Magno.

Magno held both a Class D security license and a Class G firearm license, which together enabled him to work as an security guard and carry a .357 and 9 mm handgun, according to police and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Licensing in Tallahassee.

Friends and residents said he was a loner who had recently suffered from such severe depression he had asked his ex-wife Wendy not to bring his three young daughters to visit him at his two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment.

Still, Magno's fromer mother-in-law, Paula Gilbert, 64, said on Monday she was stunned to learn he was apparently at the heart of the mayhem that erupted on Sunday. Magno and Gilbert's daughter Wendy divorced about six years ago, she said.

"He lost it," said Gilbert, who was caring for Magno's three young daughters on Sunday after the fire. "He had a lot of problems."

Family members said they are certain Magno perished in the fire.

"We believe it's him," Gilbert said. Police told the family they will likely rely on fingerprints and dental records to identify the person found dead in the building, because the body was badly burned in the fire, she said.

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