Video: Ohio fatal fire

updated 9/13/2004 3:23:20 PM ET 2004-09-13T19:23:20

A suspected arson fire raced through an apartment complex in suburban Columbus on Sunday, killing 10 people who lived in the same apartment and forcing others to jump from third-story windows to escape.

At least 53 people were left homeless by the blaze in Prairie Township, which destroyed the building’s roof and third floor, melted siding and left its wooden skeleton exposed.

Antonio Noriega said firefighters pulled him from a ladder as he tried to rescue his brothers and nephews.

“My family is dead,” Noriega said. Eight of his relatives — including three young boys — and two friends lived in the apartment, he said. Authorities wouldn’t say whether others were still missing.

The fire came just six weeks after three fires were set in the same building in an empty apartment and hallway, said Fire Chief Steve Feustel. There were no suspects and no known witnesses to Sunday’s suspected arson, he 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.

Tried to escape
The victims lived on the third floor and tried to escape, Feustel said.

“They were out of their beds. They didn’t die in their sleep,” he said.

Two people, including a woman who jumped from a window, were treated and released from a hospital, a nursing supervisor said.

Residents of the gutted 24-unit building stood vigil outside — some wrapped in blankets, some quietly sobbing. The American Red Cross handed out water, coffee and doughnuts, and helped residents find temporary housing.

The fire started about 2:30 a.m. in the basement or the first floor, but the cause was not known, Feustel said. He said the fire burned fiercely in a stairway, blocking people from escaping.

Pascasie Mulanigulwa, who lives in the next building, was awakened by the light through her bedroom window. “I saw people jumping down out of the third floor. It was terrible,” she said.

A hydrant that had been knocked over delayed getting water to fight the fire, which was already shooting through the roof when crews arrived, Feustel said.

'Fire is coming fast'
“These people were probably already down by the time fire crews were on the scene,” he said.

Killed in the fire were Ismael Noriega, 36; his wife, Lidia Mejia, 22; their three young sons; Mejia’s two brothers; her nephew and two family friends, according to Antonio Noriega, Ismael’s brother.

“My family, they’re sleeping and the fire is coming fast,” he said. “I can’t help my brothers.”

Noriega said his family members were all immigrants from Mexico who came to Columbus four years ago. Many in the family worked together at a landscaping company.

The family had hoped to one day return to their hometown of Leon in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico, said Martin Noriega, Ismael’s nephew.

“I think they wish to go back to Mexico this year or next year, but they couldn’t make it,” he said.

Friends said there could sometimes be 12 or more people living in the 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment, but there was never any fighting.

“They loved living with each other,” said their friend Laura Schlueb.

Antonio Noriega said the bodies will be taken back to Mexico for the funerals.

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