Ohio Apartment Fire That Killed 10 Ruled Arson

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Relatives of 10 immigrants killed in a fast-moving apartment fire still have many questions but also a new focus: the search for whoever is responsible.

The blaze in a two-bedroom apartment that also left more than 50 homeless has been ruled arson, the state marshal's office said Thursday night.

``Everyone's beginning to focus into the direction of the criminal investigation. That this is something that was set intentionally _ there is someone out there to blame,'' said Ezra Escudero, executive director of the Ohio Commission for Hispanic/Latino Affairs, who met with family members Thursday night to tell them the news.

Investigators determined the fire started early Sunday in a stairwell at the Lincoln Park West apartment complex, then spread up into the building's attic and back down into all the apartments, Gerald Robinson, chief deputy state fire marshal, said at a news conference.

Robinson said investigators had no known motive for the fire and would not comment on whether there were any suspects. He also wouldn't say if an accelerant was used.

The fire is now a criminal investigation, Robinson said.

``We have 10 homicides as well as the arson,'' he said.

Investigators believe the fire burned for about 10 minutes before the first 911 call. The building did not have smoke alarms in common areas such as stairwells, but was not required to have them, Robinson said.

The fire forced residents to jump from third-story windows, including some mothers dropping their children to people below.

Flames left the 24-unit apartment building's wooden skeleton exposed above melted siding, and almost completely burned off the roof.

Throughout the investigation, fire officials had said the blaze was suspicious because of its magnitude, the number of deaths and previous fires in the same building.

Ismael Noriega, 36, his wife, Lidia Mejia, 22, their three young sons, three other members of the Mejia family and two friends from the central Mexico town of Leon died in the third-story apartment that they shared.

All 10 died of burns and smoke inhalation, but their injuries were too severe for family to identify them. Dr. Brad Lewis, the Franklin County corner, said Thursday that DNA testing was underway but results might not be available for weeks or months.

One body was found on the landing outside their apartment, and the others were found inside, Robinson said.

``We suspect once the door to apartment 11 was open, with the volume of fire in the stairwell, that those people were overcome by fumes and the toxic heat very rapidly,'' Robinson said.

Noriega moved to Columbus four years ago from Leon, and worked as a landscaper to support his family and his parents back home.

Thursday night, an informal memorial consisting of several bouquets of flowers, religious candles, teddy bears and photographs of those killed sat on a rock about 50 feet from the gutted apartment building.

Five of the male adult victims worked for the same Columbus landscaping company. Owner David Peabody said Thursday night that he'd expected the announcement.

Peabody said he continues to be upset that a fire hydrant, hit sometime before the blaze by a car, wasn't working.

``Everybody in that community pays their share of taxes, and feel quite frankly they've been slighted,'' he said.

Peabody said he has created a memorial fund in honor of the three families who lost relatives. He also hopes to create a memorial garden near the apartment where the fire happened.