FOSTORIA - It was a July 4th to remember but for all the wrong reasons.
One of the town's oldest buildings stood gutted from an early morning fire that claimed the life of a man and a 4-year-old girl. So rather than celebrate the nation's birthday, Stephanie Hernandez stood at the corner of East Tiffin and Main streets wondering when firefighters would find the body of the niece she cared for, Jamese Williamson.
Lloyd Doe, owner of the Doeshire at 114-120 East Tiffin, the three-story rooming house and apartment building that burned, sat with his family on the steps of the Masonic Temple, across the street from his business, sifting through records retrieved by firefighters to determine how many tenants he had.
Mayor John Davoli, on the scene since 3 a.m., was so consumed by the events he had forgotten, he said, that it was a holiday. Assistant Fire Chief Pete Di Cesare waited patiently for workers to stabilize the fractured building so his men could search for Jamese and retrieve the body of the man spotted on the first floor.
Curious residents who might otherwise had been swimming or picnicking or attending a family barbecue, gathered in the alley next to the Doeshire waiting to find out who had died, how the fire had started, and when the wrecker parked on East Tiffin would begin its work.
“It's terrible,” said Virginia Miller, whose mother, Mary Thompson, worked in the building in the early 1970s when it was the New Ohio Hotel. “It's a waste of human life, and the loss of that building is a waste for this town.”
This is the second small town rooming house fire in a week. Last Friday, two people died when a grease fire destroyed a downtown apartment building in the Fulton County village of Wauseon.
Fostoria firefighters yesterday declined to name the deceased man until he can positively be identified and his relatives are notified. They found Jamese's body about 4 p.m. in the second-story room where she was spending the night with her grandfather, Steve Dourest, and three other grandchildren.
Five people were treated for smoke inhalation in Fostoria Community Hospital, firefighters said.
The fire, of unknown origin, was reported at 1:38 a.m., Chief Di Cesare said. By the time he arrived, at 2:30, the building's first floor was engulfed, and the fire had spread to the second floor. Mr. Doe, who lives four blocks from his business, said he saw flames shooting out of a third-floor window next to Mr. Durst's room when he first arrived at about 1:50 a.m.
The age of the building - it was built in the 1880s - and the build-up of tar on the old roof figured prominently in the fire's rapid movement, firefighters said. By 3:30, the building was fully engulfed, the roof had collapsed, and firefighters could only stand outside with their hoses, their main task at that point to keep the blaze from spreading to other buildings.
“It was too hot,” said Chief Di Cesare, adding that the fire was under control by 4:30 a.m.
Firefighters from Tiffin, Findlay, Washington Township, Rising Sun, Kansas, Bascom, and Bradner aided the Fostoria department as part of a mutual aid agreement between those communities.
“I believe if we wouldn't have had that agreement, we would have lost an entire city block,” said Mr. Davoli.
Not long after the fire was spotted, Anthony Williams was walking down Main Street when he saw his uncle, Joshua Williams, and other men in front of the burning Doeshire holding a blanket. He joined them and, looking up to the third floor, saw the faces of four children peering through a window along with Mr. Durst.
“They were yelling, `We're going to burn up!'” he said.
Anthony Williams said the men told the children and Mr. Durst to jump, but about that time firefighters arrived and coaxed Mr. Durst and three of his grandchildren - Deneah Durst, 7, James Hernandez, 8, and Anthony Hernandez, 6 - down the ladder.
Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Williams said he wished all of them had jumped.
“We could have got her out,” he said.
But Chief Di Cesare disputed Mr. Williams' viewpoint.
“[If they had jumped] they would have ripped the blanket out of their hands and hit the concrete,” he said.
Three children came down the ladder first, followed by Mr. Durst. Only after he was on the ground did firefighters find out Jamese was still upstairs. By then it was too hot to return up the ladder, Chief Di Cesare said.
“I think he was confused and didn't realize there was one left,” he said of Mr. Durst. “It was so hot, they were ready to jump.”
Ms. Hernandez, who cared for all four children, said she had traveled to Norwalk on Wednesday and that Mr. Durst, her father, had taken the children for the day, as he often did.
“He's really shook up,” she said of her father. “He could hear [Jamese] yelling, `Papa! Papa!'”
Family members said Mr. Durst had taken the children swimming Wednesday afternoon at the home of a friend. They described Jamese as an outgoing, friendly child whose favorite food was pickles.
After checking his soggy records, Mr. Doe said he had 16 tenants in the building, which contained 32 single rooms and 10 apartments. Some of his tenants were transients, he said, making it harder for officials to track them down. Each room was equipped with a smoke alarm with batteries he frequently checked, said Mr. Doe, a retired Fostoria police officer who has owned the Doeshire since 1978.
Fire escapes are located at the east and north end of the building, but Chief Di Cesare said the location of the fire's hot spot - in the building's center - would have prevented many residents from reaching them.
Jim Harting, chief of the State Fire Marshall's District 3 office, said the cause of the fire and the location of its origin were not yet known. The building is a total loss and will be demolished within a week or two, Mr. Di Cesare said. Two other adjoining buildings housing a tavern and a hair styling salon, suffered smoke and water damage, firefighters said.
Mr. Doe said the building was insured but that he will not rebuild.
“I am retiring for good,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, as onlookers gasped, the wrecker took out two-thirds of the third-story's front wall. Two hours later, they found Jamese's body.
Mr. Doe, who lost a 3-year-old granddaughter in a 1991 Valentine's Day fire, said he understood her family's grief.
“I have nothing but sympathy and pity for them,” he said.