Two fire investigators have testified that a spectacular blaze that destroyed a yacht and boathouse in Lake Union was deliberately set by a Montana man who later filed a $1.3 million insurance claim.
Both experts testified in a civil case that has strong criminal under currents.
The testimony is being given in a nonjury trial before U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer in suit filed by a New York insurance firm.
Albany Insurance Company is seeking to void the policy on the ground that the fire was no accident.
The arson specialists testified yesterday that neither knew anything about the financial condition of the vessel's owner - Bruce Vorhauer, inventor of the Today Contraceptive Sponge - at the time they independently reached the same conclusion.
Vorhauer's 85-foot, all-wood yacht, the Lark - which he had purchased from Montana industrialist Dennis Washington for $1 million in 1988 - was a day away from foreclosure at the time of the June 2, 1991, fire, according to evidence introduced at trial.
One of the experts, David Faires, a member of the Seattle Fire Department fire-investigation unit that responded to the alarm, testified the fire was set intentionally by "the last person documented as being on the vessel - Mr. Vorhauer."
He said his opinion was based on an examination of burn patterns and other evidence.
Faires' findings were corroborated by Dennis Fowler, a former member of the same unit who retired last February after 27 years with the department.
Under cross examination by Dexter Delaney, Vorhauer's lawyer, Faires acknowledged the fire has always been officially listed as "of suspicious origin," a category in between accidental and arson.
Faires said inconsistencies between what Vorhauer said happened, and the fire's "time frame" account for that classification.
Faires said the fire engulfed the yacht far too quickly for it to have been smoldering. Vorhauer testified he left the vessel about 8:45 a.m. The alarm was called in at 8:59 a.m., and by 9:02, a woman living on a nearby vessel was videotaping flames shooting from the boathouse containing the yacht.
But under questioning by Delaney, Faires admitted he goofed by failing to order scientific testing of certain charred remains, and of a propane torch that Vorhauer said he was using shortly before the fire broke out.
Vorhauer testified he was attempting repairs on a "heater exchange" device in a closet next to the bunk when he heard a smoke alarm go off.
When he went topside to investigate, he set down a propane torch on the floor of the closet without turning it off.
Once he figured out the source of the alarm and took care of it, he left the vessel believing all was secure.
In retrospect, he testified, Vorhauer believes the propane torch probably burned through a cedar-lined, plywood-backed closet wall, igniting a mattress lying flat on a bunk on the other side.
But Faires and Fowler testified the burn patterns don't fit that theory. Both testified the foam mattress had been rolled or folded and pushed up against the foot area of the bunk space.
Faires testified the fire was caused by "an open flame set to available combustibles," referring to the mattress.
Fowler, who wrote the manual used statewide to teach basic fire investigation, testified he was not told about Faire's conclusions when he was asked to give "a second opinion" about the cause and origin of the fire.
Yesterday's testimony from Faires and Fowler contradicted that of two expert witnesses produced by Vorhauer: Dirk Nansen, an Omak lawyer with a marine and engineering background, and Robert Lowe, a private consultant who formerly was a member of the Los Angeles Fire Department arson squad.
Nansen, who admitted he has no formal training to investigate the cause and origin of fires, testified that Vorhauer's story is borne out by burn marks in the carpet on the closet floor - a "footprint" left in the rug by the torch when a large quantity of propane jetted out.
But Nansen was hardpressed to explain how the torch ended up being found on the other side of the vessel, buried under debris, when firefighters arrived. He suggested it may have propelled itself like a rocket by burning off fuel, or someone put it there.
Lowe, who worked for 12 years for the Los Angeles department, testified that portions of the closet floor were relatively undamaged because intense heat in the closet ceiling area melted solder in water-filled copper piping, creating a shower effect.
But both Fowler and Faires disputed the fire could have melted soldered joints in such pipes. Also, pictures taken the day of fire show the pipes were never separated.
Paul Daigle, representing the insurance company, has suggested that Vorhauer, as inventor of the sponge contraceptive, was quite familiar with the burning characteristics of a foam mattress.
The only question before Dwyer in this phase of the trial is whether the fire was accidental. The burden is on Vorhauer to show that it was, according to a pre-trial ruling.
Meantime, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Fire Department said the investigation into the case "is still open" and that the department is monitoring the trial.
During a court break, Daigle said the department has asked him to turn over materials he's generated from the civil suit.
The trial could end as early as today.