Guam - Acting Guam Fire Chief John Salas received strong support at this morning's [Monday] confirmation hearing which was packed with Guam Firefighters who took the opportunity to criticize the administration of former Chief Dave Parado, while praising Salas.
Most Senators ignored the issue of the allegations of theft from the dead during the KAL crash. Only Senators Palacios and Yamashita raised the question of firefighter conduct following the crash.
And, Senator Guthertz, in an attempt to suggest an explanation for the events nearly 14 years ago, prompted this response from Acting Fire Chief Salas:
"Being that these firefighters were there all night fighting this particular fire Mame, they were all exhausted. And even if they did pick up these items ... you know, like I said, they're over exhausted already, they're tired, they could have probably put them into their bunker gears, their pants, into their pockets, and probably might have forgotten, you know, that they did put it into their pockets until such time that they went home. And when they took this bunker gear off that's when they probably recovered that 'Oh! I accidentally picked this item up. And I totally forgot about turning this in.'"
However, Salas's confirmation hearing began with strong support from both firefighters and Senators.
GFD Spokesman Captain Andy Arceo, referring to previous Chief Paredo, said "Chief Salas has lifted the micro-management cloud that has engulfed our Department for years."
Arceo said that moral at the Department "is at an all time high." He called Salas "a very compassionate person. He truly cares for the people of Guam and most especially for the men and women of the Guam Fire Department."
GFD Captain Jose Cruz also referring to former Chief Perado, said Salas "he has always been one to raise the moral of employees which has been low these last few year. Plan and simple, he is a man of integrity and reliability."
Captain Ray Garrido said "In my 25 years of service I have never seen the Guam Fire Department's morale so low. It was beyond describable."
Garrido, referring to what Guam Police have confirmed is an ongoing investigation into allegations that Guam Fire Fighters stole from the dead in the 1997 KAL crash, Captain Garrido said "We have heard of the negativity just recently in the media of Chief Salas and his issues pertaining to the KAL. But again that was expected of his predecessor and his few friends."
Acting Chief Salas is not accused of involvement in those alleged thefts. But he was in charge of Internal Affairs at GFD at the time and has acknowledged seeing personal items from crash victims on the desk of then Chief Gil Reyes. And he acknowledged being questioned about the theft allegations by Guam Police and GFD last year.
When shown photographs of the alleged stolen items last Friday by PNC News, Salas and Spokesman Captain Arceo said that the photos were evidence of a tragedy and not of theft. Saying that the items had been turned in. The date on the photo of the items is August 11th, 1997. 5 days after the crash.
Senator Yamashita was the first Senator to raise the issue. Saying she had recieved many phone calls, Senator Yamashita asked "How do we clear this up? Because I have people calling me saying that you knew that money was taken and that wallets were burnt ... I just need to know."
Senator Yamashita: "You were internal affairs Section Chief?"
Senator Yamashita: "And so as these allegations surfaced, were you engaged in interviewing folks who may have been accused of stealing from these dead people."
Salas: "No Mame. I was never instructed by my Chief then, Chief Gil Reyes, to conduct an investigation."
Senator Yamashita: "So you were never aware of any kind of wrong doing?"
Salas: "I was in there very briefly in the Chief's Office ... and he just called me to view some of the items that were recovered from the crash site. I just pointed to my lead investigator, Capt. Ed Mendiola, I said 'If the Chief wants to conduct an investigation, you take care of it.' And I walked right out."
Senator Yamashita: "So you really had no responsibility to close that loop and make sure the issue was addressed?"
Salas: "No Mame. .. any wrong doing that these firefighters might have probably done out, there I simply don't believe that."
Senator Yamashita: "So was the investigation done? And were the records closed as far as you know?"
Salas: "I can't really say. I have checked with internal affairs office files and there is nothing we can find."
Later, Palacios: "You viewed the evidence? How was it handled?
Salas:"He people who were assigned to the internal affairs office.
Senator Palacios also questioned Salas asking "To your knowledge what happened to the evidence?"
Salas: "Sir. To be honest with you, I really don't know."
Senator Palacios: "As Officer in charge of internal affairs, I mean, it didn't occur to you? Your not curious to find out?"
Salas:"As I said earlier, I immediately pointed to my lead investigator, Capt. Ed Mendiola, to handle the situation, if the Chief recommends we launch an investigation."
Salas also said that he remained in charge of internal affairs for 7 months after the crash. Last week he said he was transferred out of internal affairs shortly after viewing the items taken from the crash scene.
Palacios: "So all the time after you viewed that you had 7 months actually, but nothing happened after that?"
Palacios: Yes. Sir."
Senator Guthertz, in an attempt to suggest an explanation for how the crash items came to be on the desk of former Chief Reyes, asked: "Is it possible that those items came into the possession of the Guam Fire Department in the course of trying to save lives and recover bodies?"
Salas: "Yes Mame ... being that these firefighters were there all night fighting this particular fire Mame, they were all exhausted. And even if they did pick up these items ... you know, like I said, they're over exhausted already, they're tired, they could have probably put them into their bunker gears, their pants, into their pockets, and probably might have forgotten, you know, that they did put it into their pockets until such time that they went home. And when they took this bunker gear off that's when they probably recovered that 'Oh! I accidentally picked this item up. And I totally forgot about turning this in."
Senator Guthertz: "But then they turned it in."
Salas: Yes Mame."
The date on the photos of the items taken from the KAL scene is August 11, 1997. 5 days after the crash.