WAUSEON - A fast-moving grease fire destroyed a historic downtown apartment building early yesterday, killing two people and forcing more than a dozen tenants to flee for their lives.
The fire started about 4:30 a.m. when a man cooking tacos on his kitchen stove tried to douse the grease fire with water. Within seconds, the flames shot to the ceiling. The man escaped but the fire rolled to neighboring apartments.
Killed were Glen Rice, 81, and CindraWeber, 45, who was staying with a friend inside the nearly 100-year-old building. Some tenants escaped by jumping out second-floor windows. Others, like Greg Colon, 51, and his son, Lane, 11, said they were scared.
“We were hanging out the window and I just kept yelling: `Somebody stand under the window and catch my son,' ” Mr. Colon recalled. “We could feel the heat and our only option was to jump. Now, I know what panic is about and not having options. You go out the window or you die.”
Moments later, Lane and his cat Jeep were rescued by Wauseon firefighter Jeff Buehrer, who used a ladder to reach their smoke-filled second-floor window. Mr. Colon and another tenant followed on the same ladder.
Mark Jolly, 46, escaped his burning room by jumping into a tree from his window. An hour later, he found his kitten, Beavis, on the ground alive. But he was upset when he learned that Mr. Rice - a World War II veteran he helped take care of every day - died in the fire.
“Initially, when the fire started, I tried to get out of my room and get him. I opened my door, but I couldn't get out,” Mr. Jolly said. “There was a wall of flames for 20 feet.”
The Arcade building was constructed in 1904 along the main street in the heart of this farming community. It had 20 apartments, a used-furniture shop, an electronics store, and a beauty shop.
It took eight departments several hours to bring the fire under control. The fire was already through the roof when the first department arrived, said Wauseon Fire Chief Jim Gamber.
Authorities refused to release the name of the man who caused the deadly fire. But Assistant Police Chief Keith Torbet said officials have taken a statement from the tenant, as well as blood samples.
Chief Torbet said the tenant's blood will be tested to see whether he was drunk. If he was, Chief Torbet said the tenant could be charged with negligent homicide. He said the city law director, Jeffrey Robinson, will make a determination about possible charges next week.
The Arcade building probably will be torn down. There was no immediate cost estimate of the fire damage.
Barb's Hair and Health Studio, which is next to the Arcade and is at the corner of Beech and North Fulton streets, received heavy smoke and water damage. Two its second-floor tenants escaped safely.
As fire crews knocked down flames and looked for missing fire victims in the morning, hundreds of residents in this small town of 8,000 people gathered to watch and help. A church group formed a prayer circle for one of the business owners.
Most nearby businesses did not open for the day because of the thick smoke over the city, a lack of power, and because Fulton Street was closed for blocks on both sides of the downtown railroad tracks.
Harold Sauver, whose mother-in-law owns the Arcade, said he was sickened by the fire.
More than a dozen people in the two buildings were left homeless, and those who lived in the Arcade lost everything they owned. The American Red Cross planned to put them up in hotels while they search for new homes.
“It's a real tragedy [for the tenants],” Mr. Sauver said. “Like I said, I care less about a building. A building can be rebuilt.”
Mr. Jolly said Mr. Rice, who used a walker and a cane to get around, was a retired factory worker. He said Mr. Rice typically stayed in his apartment watching television.
“He had a lot of wisdom,” Mr. Jolly said. “His favorite pastime was watching the Chicago Cubs.”
Ms. Weber worked at Bil-Jax Inc., friends at the fire scene said. Her children were not staying with her at the Arcade at the time, according to fire officials.
“I hate to see my friend pass away,” said Jo Ann Ramer, who said she used to work with Ms. Weber. “Everyone was a friend of Cindy's.”
Ms. Weber had been staying at the Arcade after the house she owned on Depot Street was labeled “uninhabitable” last month by city officials. She was ordered to clean up her property before she could return to the dwelling.41.55018 -84.13434