COLUMBUS, Ohio – An apartment building fire that police believe was arson burned so fiercely in a stairwell that it blocked residents trying to escape and forced some to jump out of windows. Ten people, many related, died.
All that remained of the 24-unit apartment building in an unincorporated area outside Columbus (search) was a wooden skeleton exposed above melted siding. At least 53 people were homeless because of Sunday's fire.
The fire killed eight relatives and two friends of Antonio Noriega, who came from Mexico in search of a better life. "My family is dead," he said.
The fire started about 2:30 a.m. in the basement or the first floor, but the cause was not known. Prairie Township Fire Chief Steve Feustel said. There were no suspects and no known witnesses. The fire came about six weeks after three fires were set in the same building in an empty apartment and hallway, Feustel said.
Gerald Robinson, chief deputy state fire marshal, cited as suspicious "the number of fatalities involved, previous fires at this apartment complex, and the magnitude of the fire upon the arrival of the first arriving company." Officials said it was too early in the investigation to say whether an accelerant was found.
Pascasie Mulanigulwa, who lives next door, was awakened by the light through her bedroom window.
"I saw people jumping down out of the third floor," she said. "It was terrible."
Relatives and friends of the victims gathered Monday near the burned-out building while Red Cross officials and members of Hispanic service organizations offered assistance.
"We're hurt because we feel more could be done," Estanilada Noriega, a sister of Antonio Noriega and fire victim Ismael Noriega, said in Spanish.
Two people, including a woman who jumped from a window, were treated and released, a nursing supervisor said.
Feustel said it was suspicious that the fire burned so fiercely in a stairway, which in modern buildings are designed not to burn.
In addition, a hydrant had been knocked over, delayed getting water to fight the fire, which was already shooting through the roof when rescue crews arrived, Feustel said.
Noriega said he tried to save the victims — reaching for a ladder to climb and help his brother and others trapped on the third floor, but firefighters pulled him away.
"My family, they're sleeping and the fire is coming fast," said Noriega, who had jumped out the window of his first-floor apartment. "I can't help my brothers."
Ismael Noriega, 36, his wife, Lidia Mejia, 22, and their three young sons died in the fire, according to Antonio Noriega, Ismael's brother. Mejia's two brothers, her nephew and two friends also were killed, Noriega said.
The victims lived in the same apartment on the third floor, which was destroyed, said Feustel. "They were out of their beds. They didn't die in their sleep," he said.
Ismael Noriega moved to Columbus four years ago to join two brothers, three sisters and several nieces and nephews. He worked for a landscaping company, sometimes up to 70 hours a week, Antonio Noriega said.
The family had hoped to return one day to their hometown of Leon in the state of Guanajuato (search) in central Mexico, said Martin Noriega, Ismael's nephew.