Flames billowed from windows on all three floors of a nearly-finished house on Church Street early Friday morning, drawing crowds of students in bar attire and pajamas to watch the blaze from across the street.
The vacant building was under construction and was scheduled to be completed by May. Firefighters expect to determine the cause of the fire sometime this week. There were no injuries.
The fire, which started at about 3 a.m., wasn’t ruled “under control” until about 6 a.m. because firefighters had to extinguish it from outside the building. Kevin Cook, a battalion chief from the Ann Arbor Fire Department, said it took longer to extinguish the fire than usual.
Cook said that while the entire building suffered from extensive water and fire damage, only one of the four units collapsed. The other three units remained standing thanks to a fire protection wall, which contained the fire in the northwest corner of the building. Cook said the fire appeared to have originated on the first floor or in the basement, but said inspectors wouldn’t be finished investigating the incident until next week.
Gas and electric lines had recently been installed in the house, said dChris Koulouras, the owner of the building. Temporary electrical lines had also been run to the building for construction, he said.
After 12 hours, firefighters were still dousing small hotspots on the house.
By 4 p.m., the fire was completely extinguished and excavation crews were removing debris.
Concerned the fire might spread to adjacent structures, police evacuated the residents living in the houses directly on each side of the building.
While the tone was lighthearted for some students watching as they excitedly took out their cell phones to take pictures, others took the situation more seriously.
“That’s my house – Where am I going to live?” LSA junior Steven Hakim said as he watched the building crumble. He had signed a lease to live in a third-story apartment unit in the building this fall. Hakim and all other future tenants will be released from their contracts and get full refunds, Koulouras said. While he said he’s not sure how construction will proceed until the extent of the damage is determined, Koulouras said he plans to meet with contractors this week.
“It was gut wrenching for me,” Koulouras said. “It was devastating to see the loss of the property. We’re grateful that no one was injured, and grateful to the city firefighters.”
As a plume of thick smoke poured through the crowd, officers ushered onlookers farther from the scene.
At about 4 a.m., some students began passing around bottles of Budweiser, toasting as bursts of ash erupted from the building.
LSA senior Albert Ortiz, one of the onlookers, was on his way home from Rick’s, a bar on Church Street, when he stopped to watch the house burn.
“Stuff like this never happens,” Ortiz said. “It’s awesome!”
Ortiz later added, “If people were hurt, then I’d feel bad.”
As smoke burst out the front doors of the house and windows shattered, one student shouted “Dude, this is no joke,” while another yelled “GEICO!”
Architecture junior Keely Poupore, who lives in the house next to the burning building, said she was frustrated by some of the people watching the house burn down.
“There were a lot of drunk people who were cheering and we were terrified that our house was going to catch on fire,” Poupore said. “We were freaking out and everywhere around us, people were very nonchalant about it.”
Because the nearly-finished building was designed to collapse inward in case of a fire, it didn’t set the neighboring buildings aflame.Poupore’s housemate, LSA junior Jenna Keefe, said she didn’t realize the severity of the situation when she was woken up to leave the house.
“I thought we were just going to see the fire, and then going back in,” Keefe said. “I walked downstairs in shorts and a T-shirt, and the police officer was like, ‘You might want to throw something else on.'”
Keefe changed into sweats, but didn’t bring anything else with her – a decision she later regretted. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. that she and her housemates were allowed back in their house to retrieve cell phones, school work and laptops. They couldn’t return to their house until 5 p.m. the next evening.