Arson or Accident? Cause Sought in Deadly Ohio Fire

Video: 5 Die In Fire Near OSU Campus
Video: Deadly Fire Stuns Community
Photos: Image Slideshow of Fire

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus police said Monday that they expect to know whether a fire that killed five college students near Ohio State was arson or an accident.

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Police Sgt. Brent Mull said that investigators plan to release the determination within the next few hours, as well as what ignited it.

Flowers and photographs adorn the front steps of the house where the fire occurred Sunday morning.

Authorities said that two of the dead are male Ohio State students who lived in the house and the three others were female Ohio University students visiting from the Athens school.

NewsChannel 4 reported that two of the victims were Ohio State students. Alan Schlessman, 21, of Perkins Township near Sandusky and Kyle Raulin, 21, of West Chester both lived in the house.

Three visiting female students from Ohio University in Athens also died, NewsChannel 4 reported. Two of them were identified as Andrea K. Dennis, 20, of Madeira, and Erin M. DeMarco, 19, of Canton. The third OU student had not been identified by Monday morning.

NewsChannel 4 reported that some 80 people were inside the house, located at 64 East 17th Avenue, for Schlessman's 21st birthday party.

The blaze, which is being called suspicious by investigators, started at about 4 a.m. The three-story house had been converted into apartments where 12 residents leased units. All of the renters were students, NewsChannel 4 reported.

Three people were transported to local hospitals with injuries. Josh Patterson, 20, an Ohio State sophomore from Cincinnati, suffered from minor burns and smoke inhalation. He is in critical condition at The Ohio State University Medical Center. Two females also were treated and released, NewsChannel 4 reported.

Jennifer Lehren, 20, of Centerville, was one of the women pulled from the house by firefighters. She was one of several students from Ohio University who attended the party, police said.

Two firefighters were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. They were treated and released.

The flames also damaged other buildings in the neighborhood.

Katie Hamilton, who lives next door, said that she was only home for about 20 minutes early Sunday when a stranger barged into her home and told her that she needed to get out.

"Some guy that I didn't know who he was just came in our house, screaming, 'You need to get out of your house. It's about to catch on fire,' Hamilton said. "I watched three of my friends get dragged out of the house.'"

"I'm never going to forget this, never," fire victim Matthew Brown said. "It's going to affect everything. It's going to affect my schoolwork. It's going to affect where I move on from here."

Brown, who lived at the house, was home at the time of the fire.

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"It really hasn't hit me yet," Brown said. "I haven't realized that two of my best friends are gone. IIt's like a nightmare that this happened," he said, "especially on my roommate's 21st birthday."

Brown said smoke alarms went off but he did not hear them. He and a friend were asleep on the top floor, where a fire escape leads to his bedroom. He said thanks to the fire escape and an unknown person, he made it out alive.

"The guy was pounding on my door, kicking it and everything" Brown said. "That woke me up. As soon as I heard him kick I was out the door. I have to find that guy because he, honestly, saved my life."

Police are investigating an argument that occurred at the party.

"This fire is among the most deadly and tragic to ever occur in Columbus," Mayor Michael Coleman said. "I want to also extend our sincere thanks to our safety forces, Columbus' firefighters and police officers, who responded to this call and bravely put the lives of others before their own -- saving three young people."

Investigators said Sunday that they believe the fire was intentionally set. It was believed that 15 to 20 people were inside the home when the blaze started. All five people who died were trapped on the second floor. Four were in one room, while another was alone in a separate room, NewsChannel 4 reported.

The fire apparently started near the front door, investigators said. They received information that there might have been some sort of altercation shortly before the fire, NewsChannel 4 reported.

Columbus police homicide detectives and a number of other detectives have been assigned to the case to find the cause of the fire and who may have started it.

"(The cause of the fire) hasn't been determined yet," Columbus Fire Battalion Chief Mike Fultz said. "We know that the point of origin was the front door."

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It took 100 firefighters one hour to put the fire out. The first firefighters to arrive on the scene reportedly did not see or hear working smoke detectors, and but they were later found.

Ohio State President Karen Holbrook visited the house and talked with investigators Sunday.

"We are clearly a community in mourning," Holbrook said. "Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the young people who lost their lives and to those who were injured. We are doing everything in our power to provide support and comfort to those in need."

Ohio State's student government association is trying to help students who are now without a home.

Donations are being made and going to the Blackwell Center, where many of the displaced students are staying.

The damage estimate to the building and one next door is $250,000.

Stay tuned to NewsChannel 4 and refresh for continuing coverage.