No Answer Yet in Deadly Ohio State Arson

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- It was a warm Saturday night in a neighborhood just off the Ohio State University campus. Students wandered from party to party, some climbing the steps to the three-story yellow house where as many as 80 people were celebrating Alan Schlessman's 21st birthday.

By dawn, Schlessman and four others were dead, killed by smoke and carbon monoxide as fire raced through the house.

Investigators say the April 13 blaze was arson, and the deaths are being treated as homicides. But a week later, they still had no motive in the blaze and had made no arrests.

The reward for information, unclaimed, was up to $23,500 Saturday.

Friends and neighbors say the 12 students who leased the house were ``all-around nice guys.''

``It's amazing that someone could have done something like that and took five great lives,'' said Meagan Teague, who had been inside the home and was pulled out by one of the party's hosts.

The partygoers had spilled through the house and onto its porch and front yard, drinking from at least four kegs. Furniture in the main first-floor room was cleared to make room for dancing.

By about 3 a.m., the party had wound down and only about 20 people remained.

Ohio University junior Andrea Dennis had called her boyfriend before going to sleep in a second-floor bedroom with two of her Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sisters. They were visiting from their school in Athens, about 70 miles away.

In their last conversation, the 20-year-old told her boyfriend she had been dancing but avoided the heavy drinking. She and her two sorority sisters all died in the fire.

Firefighters were summoned at 4:05 a.m. by an anonymous 911 call from someone who said she was a passer-by. ``Half of the house is lit up in flames,'' she said.

Some people in the house say that just before the fire started they heard a popping sound out front and glass breaking.

Detectives will only say the fire started in the front-porch area.

People on the first floor escaped as the six smoke detectors in the house wailed.

Firefighters found a fast-moving, intense blaze.

``It was like being in an oven,'' said firefighter Scott Kulpa.

As spectators yelled that people were trapped inside, rescue team members charged up the back fire escape to search the five second-floor bedrooms.

In the first bedroom, firefighters feeling their way through thick, black smoke found Jennifer Lehren, barely conscious but standing. On a bed in the back corner was her unconscious boyfriend, Ohio State sophomore Josh Patterson, who lived in the house.

Lehren, 20, suffered second-degree burns on her hands and back. Her boyfriend remained hospitalized in critical condition a week later.

``I was waking up when they were carrying me. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't even know there was a fire,'' Lehren said, her long brown hair singed and bandages on her blistered wrists.

``All I remember is me screaming 'It's so hot! It's so hot!' My hair caught on fire.''

In a bedroom across the hall, Ohio University sophomore Jillian Gardner was slumped on the floor, unconscious. A firefighter crawled through the hallway, shielding her With his own body to protect her from flames crawling across the ceiling.

Kyle Raulin, 20, was in the same room but did not survive. The Ohio State student's body was found later, partially covered by debris.

While the firefighters searched the second floor, Teague and Matt Brown were asleep in his attic bedroom. Brown, 20, an Ohio State sophomore, was awakened by what he believes was someone at the door leading to the fire escape.

``I have to find that guy because he, honestly, saved my life,'' Brown said.

Brown, in turn, saved Teague.

``I didn't budge, so he just picked me up and carried me,'' said Teague, 20.

The two made it out uninjured.

Less than two minutes after firefighters arrived, and seconds after they reached the ground with the three they rescued, the fire flashed, erupting in scope.

``At that point, the conditions were so bad, they could not re-enter the area,'' said fire Capt. Steve Saltsman. Firefighters extinguished the blaze in about an hour.

Tests showed the five who died had been drinking, but not enough to hinder their escape.

Also killed were Dennis and her sorority sisters, sophomores Christine Wilson, who friends say wore a permanent smile, and Erin DeMarco, a frequent traveler who spoke fluent Italian and Spanish.

Schlessman, whose birthday was being celebrated, has been described as an athletic, outgoing Ohio State sophomore affectionately called ``Big Al'' _ not for his size, but his big heart.

Housemate Raulin was known for being considerate.

``There's nothing that they have ever done to make anyone mad,'' said neighbor Bryan Connell. ``They are the last people to deserve this.''

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