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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

Fire at apartment building kills 2 in Weston; about 30 escape burning structure

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WESTON, Ohio His hair and body on fire, a man appeared on the second-floor balcony of the big, old house remodeled into eight apartments and then ran back inside the burning structure before his neighbors could help him.

Minutes later, the floor collapsed and flames were shooting 80 feet in the air when the first firefighters arrived about 3:20 a.m. yesterday in this western Wood County village.

The blaze was so hot, it melted vinyl siding on a house more than 100 feet away. It was about an hour before Weston Fire Chief Randy Tolles said his firefighters found the first body.

Then they found the second.

But waiting outside, Michael White and his girlfriend, Lindsey Cookson, already knew there were two fatalities.

Neither Mr. White s father, Jimmy, 69, nor his friend, Ronald L. Perez, 45, who lived in the apartment right beside his, was outside with the rest of the approximately 30 residents of 13180 Maple St.

Their apartments were in the upper back part of the building, where damage was heaviest.

It seemed impossible to determine yesterday which of the men had been spotted on the balcony by one of the many area farm workers who had moved into the building this summer.

But Mr. Perez s brother-in-law, Joseph Gehring II, and Mr. White s son Michael were convinced that it was Mr. Perez, who was often called Turtle.

Heidi Dolaney talks with State Fire Marshal Michael Bell. Ms. Dolaney s father, Jimmy White, was one of two men who died in the large, intense early morning blaze. Heidi Dolaney talks with State Fire Marshal Michael Bell. Ms. Dolaney s father, Jimmy White, was one of two men who died in the large, intense early morning blaze.
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The area farm workers thought the man went back inside the burning apartment because he had inhaled so much smoke and suffered such severe burns that he was delusional, said Rene Garcia, who lives nearby and translated conversations between the Spanish-speaking farm workers and the Red Cross and fire officials.

Mr. Gehring and Mr. White thought otherwise.

No matter whether it was Jimmy White or Mr. Perez, either would have gone inside a burning building to try to save the other, Mr. Gehring and Mr. White said.

The victims were like that, the men said.

Low on cash, material goods, and steady work, the two victims spent much of their time telling stories, and listening to classic rock n and roll radio, Mr. Gehring and Mr. White said.

A firefighter tends to hot spots on the second fl oor of the apartment building that burned in Weston, Ohio. State Fire Marshal Michael Bell estimated the loss at $250,000 for the building. Fire officials plan to monitor what s left of the structure for hot spots into this morning. A firefighter tends to hot spots on the second fl oor of the apartment building that burned in Weston, Ohio. State Fire Marshal Michael Bell estimated the loss at $250,000 for the building. Fire officials plan to monitor what s left of the structure for hot spots into this morning.
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They shared food and looked out for each other. It didn t matter that Jimmy White was old enough to be Mr. Perez s father.

Jimmy was like a dad to him, Mr. Gehring said. Turtle would have never left without him.

The men were Ohio s 93rd and 94th confirmed fire fatalities of 2008. Last year at this time, there were 107. But many years, the number is in the high 60s or low 70s in mid July, State Fire Marshal s spokesman Shane Cartmill said.

Like most fatal fires in Ohio, Mr. Cartmill said there were no working smoke detectors in the building at the corner of Maple and Walnut streets, about a block from the center of Weston.

Fire marshal s investigators yesterday didn t release a cause for the fire.

Some of the residents wondered if the fire was somehow related to rowdiness they heard when a nearby bar closed at 2:30 a.m., Mr. Garcia, the translator, said.

Most of the neighbors, however, didn t awaken until they heard efforts to fight the fire.

Kayann Warren, who lives at Walnut and Silver streets, cater-corner from the apartment building, said the flames appeared to be as high as the village s water tower when she woke up about 3:25 a.m.

It was an inferno, she said.

Firefighters called to assist the Weston department could see the glow of the blaze as they raced to get equipment in Tontogany, eight miles away.

In all, about 55 firefighters from five departments Weston, Bowling Green, Milton Township, Washington Township, and Grand Rapids put what Weston Fire Capt. Rob Trumbull estimated to be 200,000 gallons of water on the fire.

It took them 2 hours to get the blaze under control. They planned to keep watch for hot spots into this morning.

The size of the fire and the size of the building were challenges, Captain Trumbull said.

The Wood County auditor s office counts 26 rooms with a total of 5,146 square feet of finished living space in the building.

The blaze, Captain Trumbull said, was probably the second or third-largest fire he s seen in 20 years on Wood County fire departments.

It is the first fatal fire in Weston in at least 40 years, Weston Fire Chief Randy Tolles said.

The chief suffered a sprained ankle at the fire. The only other injury reported was a migrant worker who was treated for cuts suffered while leaving the burning building.

State Fire Marshal Michael Bell estimated the loss at $250,000 for the building, owned by Dan Van Voorhis.

Contents destroyed were minimal.

About 25 residents were migrant workers who had come from Florida and Texas to work for the season at Greenline Foods Inc., which processes and packages green beans just south of Bowling Green.

Neither Mr. White nor Mr. Perez had many possessions.

And the young family that lived in the front, lower section of the building Molly Steele, 26; her fiance, Jeremy Spanfellner, 31, and their sons, Tyler Spanfellner, 7, and

Logan Spanfellner, 4 were hoping to salvage some items from their apartment. At the top of Ms. Steele s list was a Precious Moments blanket, better known as Logan s blankie.

The family woke up to pounding on the door and yells of Fire! from their upstairs neighbors.

While Mr. Spanfellner ran outside to look, Ms. Steele picked up their youngest son.

It was only their 7-year-old who had the presence of mind to put on his clothes and shoes. His parents walked out barefoot in the T-shirts and sweat pants they had worn to bed.

I was kind of in a state of shock, Ms. Steele said yesterday afternoon as she and her fiance walked around in their nightclothes and sandals someone gave them.

Meanwhile, Michael White was making a vow to his late father to take his body back to his boyhood home in Kentucky.

Autopsies are to be performed today by the Lucas County coroner.

Mr. White, who had moved back and forth from Kentucky to Wood County for decades, had been talking about wanting to return to Kentucky.

His son hadn t been thinking it would be the family cemetery where his father s parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are buried. But yesterday, he said he would make sure that happened.

He planned to go home to Kentucky this month, he said. I guess he gets his wish.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:jschmucker@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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