EUCLID, OH—Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assured the American people Monday that terrorism was "not likely a factor" in the fire that damaged a downtown Euclid laundromat Sunday afternoon.
"At this time, there is nothing to suggest that yesterday's Sudsy Duds fire was the work of a terrorist group, al-Qaeda or otherwise," Ridge said. "The FBI is conducting a thorough investigation into the cause, but thus far, there is no evidence indicating that this was a terrorist strike against our nation."
Euclid Fire Chief Andrew Donnelly, who has been working closely with state and federal officials in the wake of the blaze, offered his theory on its cause.
"I'm guessing water flooded into the basement, causing a misfire in an oil furnace that sparked a minor explosion," Donnelly said. "Groundwater probably seeped through the walls of the lower level and reached the boiler in the middle of the floor. Luckily, we were able to contain the blaze without causing too much structural water damage. Coulda been a lot worse."
Damage from the fire is estimated at $27,000. Among the casualties were seven large-capacity dryers, a detergent-vending machine, and a Pengo arcade game.
According to Ridge, there is no evidence to suggest that the facility was used as a "soft target," in spite of the federal government's recent terror-alert upgrade to orange.
"We can say with a high degree of certainty that this fire was not masterminded by Osama bin Laden or any other such figure," Ridge said. "There were no intercepted communications between suspected terrorists regarding this laundromat, and no sign of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons was found after a thorough search of all washers, dryers, folding tables, and snack machines."
Added Ridge: "I would, however, urge the public to remain extra-vigilant in these times of heightened alert and be sure to report any unusual or suspicious activities they witness at laundromats or any other public place."
Though Euclid is home to an estimated seven Muslims, none are considered suspects at this time.
"We checked, and every member of Euclid's Islamic community has an airtight alibi," Ridge said. "I further discussed these foreign-born residents with Euclid police chief Stan Welker, who vouched for their character, saying, 'They're all good, decent folks, just like you and me.' We may still bring them in for a little further questioning, but I don't have real reason to suspect they're behind this."
Welker said he has accounted for everyone who used the facility in the 24 hours prior to the fire. Thus far, he has found no evidence suggesting foul play.
"The names of key witnesses were taken, should further questioning be required, but preliminary interviews have revealed nothing suspicious," Welker said. "It was a pretty slow day. At the time of the fire, there were only five people in there: Jenny Kroeger and her two kids and an elderly couple from over on Franklin Street."
Sudsy Duds owner Mike Birbiglia arrived within minutes of the fire.
"Normally, the basement is actively pumped dry, but the sump pump apparently broke or was unplugged," Birbiglia said. "Well, we think that's what happened. Who knows? All we know for sure is I got one heck of a mess to clean up down there."
In spite of the unlikelihood that the incident was a terrorist act, Birbiglia said he plans to hire guards from Safe-T Security of Euclid to patrol the premises after closing.
"I'm sure it was nothing," Birbiglia said, "but if it's all the same, I'd rather not take any chances. Last thing I need is somebody trying to mess up my store just as I'm about to put in those new triple-load washers."
Attempting to calm a jittery nation bracing for the next terrorist attack, President Bush said there is no cause for alarm.
"The Euclid fire appears to be an isolated incident unrelated to terrorism," Bush said. "But next time, we might not be so lucky. That is why we, as a nation, must do everything we can to drive out Saddam Hussein and his ilk. By confronting terrorism head-on, we can once again live in a nation where we don't jump every time a dryer buzzer goes off."
Bush said Euclid officials will remain in close communication with state and federal government agencies.
"If they find any proof of terrorist activity, all levels will be notified," Bush said. "Now, everyone go about your day as normal."