Other Campuses: Off-campus fire leaves 3 students dead

By The Miami Student

(U-WIRE) OXFORD, Ohio – At 4:30 a.m. Sunday, pungent smoke cloaked the corner of North Main Street and Withrow Street – smoke that continued to billow from the old white brick of a two-story student rental home until early Sunday afternoon.

The grey smoke piled into the sky from the flames of a fire at the residence of 122 N. Main St. and charged into every room of the nine-person student-occupied home.

The grey smoke also killed three Miami University (Ohio) students.

Senior Steven J. Smith, senior Julia H. Turnbull and junior Kathryn T. Welling were unable to escape the fire.

Coroner Richard Burkhardt said carbon monoxide poisoning was the cause of death for Turnbull and Welling. Smith’s cause of death remains unknown.

Tearful students gathered at the site, holding on to each other as they faced the charred building. Parents, Oxford, Ohio, residents and university and city officials also joined in support. Many uptown restaurants brought food and drinks to the parking lot of McCullough-Hyde to aid the attending officials.

President James Garland was present, interacting with students.

“Those of us who have children realize this is a nightmare,” he said in an informal midday press conference. With tears in his eyes behind his sunglasses, Garland acknowledged the parent-like responsibility he feels toward the students.

“We tend to have perspective as parents,” he said. “I feel I’m a surrogate father for all of you guys.”

Many students were shaken up, realizing an incident like this could happen to any off-campus residence.

“It’s a little too familiar, if you know what I mean,” junior Jenn Houle, who lives only a few houses from the site, said.

Houle, like many other students, received several concerned phone calls from family and friends in regards to her safety after word had spread about the devastating fire.

“Unfortunately, we have an attitude that it’s not going to happen to me,” Fire Chief Len Endress said. “It’s not a question of if (an off-campus fire will occur), but when and how many fatalities will occur.”

Responding to a cellular phone call at 4:31 a.m., Oxford police officers arrived in less than a minute to the scene to find “flames at every orifice,” Police Chief Steve Schwein said.

Of the estimated 13 students who were in the house at the time, most were able to escape without severe injuries. One student jumped out of a second-floor window on the north side of the home and was admitted into McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital, where he was released the same day. Another student was also admitted and released.

– Shannon Hinegardner

Three fire departments were dispatched to the scene, including the Oxford Fire Department, the Reily Fire Department and the College Corner Fire Department. Upon arriving at the scene, fire officials said — of the students who escaped — all but one had already exited the home. The last student to escape was directed by firefighters to break the glass of the upper-story window and jump.

Prior to the fire, all students in the house were sleeping. Those on the first floor were awoken by a smoke detector, according to Endress.

The firefighters could not enter the house at arrival because of the extent of the flames and smoke. They later entered the building after the flames died to remove the three bodies of the students. One was found on the main floor near the door at the bottom of the stairs. The other two were found upstairs in beds in separate bedrooms.

Although the cause of the fire remains unknown, Endress said plaster paneling material on the walls might have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

“They had very, very little time to get out,” Endress said, noting that the hotness of the fire caused windows to pop and break.

The most damage to the house occurred in the first-floor recreation room, where officials speculate the fire might have started. A substantial portion of the roof also suffered heavy destruction and collapsed.

Because of the electrical wiring above the house, the firefighters’ defensive attack had to be mostly fought from the ground. Multiple hoses were used in unison from many angles, capturing control of the fire about 90 minutes after it started.

This building, dating back to the 1900s, is run by College Real Estate Management. It consisted of three separate apartments, with four, three and two residents in each, respectively — totaling to the nine male renters for the location. Each apartment contained bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

The address, which was last inspected in 2003, had received written notice of an upcoming assessment. Oxford’s city ordinance for buildings includes rules for ventilation and placement of smoke detectors in every bedroom.

Endress, who has been with the Oxford fire department since 1970, said this is the worst fatality fire he has seen in the city. He said the last fire-related fatality in Oxford occurred in the mid-1980s when one student died in a fire on the corner of Homestead Avenue and Campus Avenue. He also referenced a double fatality in the late 1970s on West Withrow Street involving two residents of Oxford.

The community witnessed the death of Deputy Chief Stanley Meyer from Hamilton’s fire department in the August 1971 fire at the Masonic Temple. Only a few months away from his retirement, Meyer was killed in the fire at the location of Skyline Chili restaurant’s current existence.

“There are fires just like everywhere else,” Endress said, “and a majority of them are in off-campus housing.”

He said off-campus locations are less regulated in regards to fire safety than dormitories.

Garland also weighed in on the issue of off-campus safety.

“I have been personally concerned about the dilapidated (state of some of the houses) and the way they have been maintained,” he said, recognizing the issues surround off-campus housing in many college campuses. “Landlords can make a lot of money renting to students.”

As the Sunday afternoon approached evening, students began to pile flowers and signs on the lawn and down the sidewalk entry to the home. With their heads bowed in grief, they lend each other their support.

“We love you Steven,” reads big, black letters on a yellow poster tacked to a telephone pole in front of the house.

“I’ll never forget your brown eyes and great smile,” one girl wrote. “I’ll never forget you.”

Miami University officials are working with the fire survivors to provide emotional support and assistance with housing, etc.

Shannon Hinegardner