The Ann Arbor fire and police departments are currently investigating a series of suspicious fires that occurred at residences near campus on Saturday.
In response to the fires, which included a blaze in a rental house on State Street and a fire under The Abbey apartment building on Church Street, the Department of Public Safety sent out a crime alert to the University community Saturday evening, alerting community members of the fires and warning them to take precautions.
“The fires all began outside apartment houses at different times (Saturday),” the crime alert states. “One fire resulted in one death and other significant injuries.”
Though officials are still investigating the cause of one of the fires — an early morning blaze that gutted a rental house on 928 S. State St. killing one and injuring two others — officials suspect the fire may have begun after an upholstered couch caught fire on the house’s porch.
According to a press release distributed by the Ann Arbor Police Department on Saturday, the State Street fire was reported to have started on the porch at about 5:15 a.m. before it spread to the rest of the house.
Three residents were sent to the University Hospital. One of the residents, former Eastern Michigan University student Renden LeMasters, died on Saturday. LeMasters was 22 years old.
Of the two other hospitalized residents, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Brown said one is a University student who was treated and released Saturday, and the other is a woman unaffiliated with the University. The woman remains in critical condition, Brown said.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily Saturday night, Brown refused to comment on the specific cause of the fire, but said that “upholstered couches on porches present an incredible life safety risk for apartment residents.”
Ann Arbor Fire Marshall Kathleen Chamberlain said in an interview with the Daily Saturday afternoon that the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
“There’s damage to the whole house,” Chamberlain said.
According to the release, a witness driving down State Street at about 5:15 a.m. noticed a fire on the porch of the house.
The press release stated that the witness pulled over to notify the occupants of the house, but the fire quickly spread to the interior of the building.
According to the release, five people were inside the house at the time the fire began, three of whom were taken to the University Hospital.
Of the four residents who were not transported to the hospital, at least three are University students.
Bryan Vessels, a University senior who lives on the house’s main floor, said in an interview with the Daily that he was able to escape the house without injury.
“I was in my room in the back of the house,” Vessels said. “I got out the back door.”
Al Girard, a University senior who lives across the street from the house, said he woke up at about 5 a.m. and witnessed the blaze as firefighters came.
“The whole front of the house was on fire,” Girard said.
Girard said that about a minute after the fire trucks arrived, he saw a woman on fire run out of the house. According to Girard, the woman ran across the street before a firefighter intervened and sprayed her with a fire extinguisher.
According to an annarbor.com article, one person jumped from a second story window, while two others were rescued from the roof.
Captain Jim Budd, an Ann Arbor firefighter, said in an interview with the Daily that he arrived on the scene at about 6 a.m.
By that time, Budd said the three injured residents had been transferred to the hospital, but the house “was still smoking.”
At about 2:20 p.m. on Saturday firefighters removed the caution tape surrounding the house and cleared the way for three employees of the Belfor Property Restoration group, who subsequently began boarding up the house.
In another incident early Saturday morning, students living in The Abbey apartment building were forced to evacuate after a fire charred three cars parked below the building, causing smoke damage to some of the units above the smoldering cars.
Though the crime alert referenced several fires outside residences near campus, Brown said on Saturday evening that she couldn’t confirm a connection between the State Street fire and the fire below The Abbey.
Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire at The Abbey. Investigators first arrived on the scene at about 3:15 a.m. Saturday morning, according to Ann Arbor Fire Department Battalion Chief Kevin Cook.
Most students were allowed back in to the building, located at 909 Church St., early Saturday morning. But at about 3:15 a.m. those students whose apartments are located directly above where the parked cars caught fire were still waiting to find out when they would be able to move back in.
Cook said firefighters had to knock down the doors of the most affected apartments — which face the alley behind the front entrance of the building — and students would not be let back in until the doors could be properly locked or replaced.
“I don’t know if it will be done tonight,” Cook said in an interview early Saturday morning.
As of Sunday evening, AAFD officials said they couldn’t comment on whether the displaced residents were allowed to move back into the building.
Students at the scene said they first became aware of the fire sometime between 1:45 a.m. and 1:55 a.m. on Saturday.
Rackham student Robbie Brant, who lives in a house near the building, said he first called 911 at about 1:45 a.m., adding that he doesn’t think he was the first to call 911 to report the fire.
“We could hear the popping,” he said. “I heard people screaming, what I thought was fighting, and I saw the car was on fire.”
Engineering junior Saahil Karpe, who lives in The Abbey, said he first saw the fire from outside his window.
“I came home from the bars and was hanging out by myself and saw some lights from my living room,” Karpe said.
Karpe added that he was told to evacuate the building by firefighters on the scene and called his friends who live in the building to tell them to evacuate.
Michigan State University sophomore Austin Brooks said he was on his way back to a friend’s house nearby when he first became aware of the fire.
“I was walking outside, and I heard a huge pop,” Brooks said.
He added that he saw the middle of the three cars catch on fire first, and then the fire spread to cars to the right and left.
LSA sophomore Vishal Shah said when he got home from a party he found that his car had caught on fire. Shah said his car was the farthest right of the three.
“The middle car blew up, and mine just got caught up in the mess,” Shah said.
He added that he hadn’t fully comprehended the effects of the fire.
“This will probably hit me tomorrow,” Shah said.
LSA sophomore David Baumstein said he didn’t find out about the fire until he was woken up by Karpe, adding that if Karpe hadn’t called him he probably would have never known about it.
“I was sleeping and then (Karpe) called me and I just ignored the phone call,” he said. “Then I woke up to the fire truck and I called him back and he said ‘you need to get out of the building.’ ”
Baumstein said he didn’t hear fire alarms going off in his apartment or in the building’s hallways.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he said.
— Daily Staff Reporter Devon Thorsby contributed to this report.