Deadly Friday Harbor fire under investigation by state and federal agents

Federal ATF agents and state Crime Lab investigators join in the examination of the scene of Sunday
Federal ATF agents and state Crime Lab investigators join in the examination of the scene of Sunday's deadly fire in Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

The site of the fire-damaged home in which a 49-year-old Friday Harbor woman died in Sunday's predawn blaze turned into a possible crime scene earlier today. 

Or so it appears, as about a dozen state and federal agents on Wednesday began a sweep of the site as part of an extended investigation into what local authorities only a short time ago believed was the site of a deadly but accidental fire. 

The streets surrounding Sharon Hammel's Park Street home were cornered off early Wednesday as agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and officers with the Washington State Crime Lab scoured the home and the property, collecting evidence and interviewing neighbors.  

San Juan County Undersheriff Jon Zerby said state and federal investigators were brought in to dig a little deeper to help resolve some unanswered questions about what happened at the home the night that the fire broke out. 

"There may be more to this one than we originally thought," Zerby said. "We thought we'd bring in the pros and let the experts do their job, and make sure we've got everything covered that we should." 

Hammel, a Town of Friday Harbor employee since 2004 and lead caretaker of its parks department, died at the scene of Sunday's early morning blaze. Her body was removed early Sunday evening from a bedroom at the back of the home that was consumed by flames.

Her 15-year-old son and a man in his mid-20s, who rented a room at Hammel's home, escaped the inferno which lit up the rear of the single-story home.  

Chief Steve Marler of San Juan Island Fire Department said Tuesday that the fire appeared to have started accidentally given results of a preliminary on-scene investigation. He said investigators found no sign that the fire or its origin were suspicious in the initial exam, which was conducted by a member of the Skagit County-based regional fire investigation task force.  

"It did appear to be accidental based on the facts as we knew them at that time," he said. 

That was then. 

Marler noted previously that the on-scene investigation was focused on the fire itself and that the manner in which Hammel died would be determined by the county prosecuting attorney's office, which doubles as the county coroner. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner routinely undertakes the task of determining a cause of death in cases involving fatalities considered to be suspicious or violent.   

Zerby said a statement from Sheriff Rob Nou, who was on the mainland early Wednesday, is expected to circulated regarding the investigation by state and federal agencies following his return later in the day.  

(Editor's note: Sharon Hammel was employed by the town of Friday Harbor for seven years; this article has been updated since originally posted to correct the length of her employment).

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