Fatal campus fire prompts push for safety

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Fatal campus fire prompts push for safety

Fatal campus-related fires in Ohio since 2000

  • Jan. 1, 2013: University of Cincinnati students Chad Kohls of Centerville and Ellen Garner of Tipp City were killed in a fire in off-campus housing. The blaze was caused by a space heater that ignited bedding in a second-floor bedroom. No charges have been filed.
  • April 21, 2007: Matt Simpson, 20, who had been a student at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, was killed in an off-campus fire. There were no working smoke alarms in the house.
  • April 10, 2005: Three Miami University students — Julie Turnbull, 21, of Milford, Kathryn Welling, 21, of Bronxville, N.Y., and Stephen Smith, 22, of Bethesda, Md. — were killed in off-campus house fire. The fire started in a couch on the front porch from a discarded cigarette. Eight other occupants were able to escape.
  • April 13, 2003: Five students were killed in off-campus fire near Ohio State University. Two of the students attended OSU — Kyle Raulin, 20, of West Chester Twp., and Alan Schlessman, 21, of Sandusky. Three other students were visiting from Ohio University: Andrea Dennis, 20, of Madeira, Erin DeMarco, 19, of Canton, and Christine Wilson, 19, of Dublin. The fire was ruled an arson. No one has been prosecuted for the crime.
  • May 19, 2001: John Carroll University senior Michael Mansmann, 23, Eighty Four, Pa., was killed in an off-campus house fire caused by a discarded cigarette in a couch.
  • May 19, 2001: Ohio University senior Jamie Dutko, 22, of Strongsville, was killed in a fire that started in an electrical strip under a desk in her bedroom. A second occupant, Travis Frymoyer, 21, of Centerville, who was visiting died six days later.
  • Dec. 10, 2000: University of Dayton senior Austin Cohen, 21, of Loveland, was killed in a fire at a university-owned house. The fire alarm system was disabled at the time of the fire. There were eight students living in the house at the time of the fire. The residents had extinguished an earlier fire at the house. One of the occupants, Paul Morgan, was later arrested and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and arson. He served a six-month sentence at a community correctional facility.

Source: Campus Firewatch

When a fire broke out on New Year’s Day near the University of Cincinnati, students Chad Kohls of Centerville and Ellen Garner of Tipp City were trapped in a third-floor bedroom with no way out except a stairway filled with toxic smoke.

Both died days later from smoke inhalation, ending promising young lives. Today, their grief-stricken families are advocating for better fire safety standards on college campuses, prompting Cincinnati officials to contemplate changes in the housing code as well as better enforcement of existing laws.

“If we’re not going to make fire safety improvements in housing around campus, then we’re going to have to be prepared to accept more fatalities in the future,” said Ellen’s father, Rod Garner. Added her mother, Ann, “Because fires will always happen. They will.”

It is a tragedy that has occurred on other Ohio campuses. Three Miami University students were killed in a fire in an off-campus house on April 10, 2005. Five students died in a house near the Ohio State University campus on Palm Sunday, 2003. And Austin “A.J.” Cohen, a 21-year-old University of Dayton football player from Loveland, died in a Dec. 10, 2000, house fire set by students tossing lighted wads of paper.

Most of the fatal fires involving college students in the United States have occurred in off-campus housing. Since 2000, 161 lives have been lost in fires at dorms, Greek residences and off-campus houses and apartments, according to the national organization, Campus Firewatch.

The Garners pointed out one terrifying fact that has resonated with parents who have heard their story: “This could have been anybody’s kid.”

“There was a stairwell,” Rod Garner said. “One stairwell; in a converted attic. So there was no way for them to get out. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of housing like that. This is common across the country. The problem is the homes were not originally designed to house all these people.”

The families have enlisted the help of Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, who hopes to see revisions in the city’s housing code as well as better enforcement of existing laws. “We are interested in beefing up the adequate number of fire escapes,” she said. “UC is not unique. All over the country, landlords want to put as many people in these housing units as they possibly can, and sometimes they bend the rules.”

House in violation of city code

The fire broke out shortly before 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day at 2824 Digby Ave., where Kohls lived with at least five other UC students in the University Heights neighborhood not far from campus. Garner, who lived in a sorority house, was visiting.

The blaze was caused by a space heater that ignited bedding in a second-floor bedroom, according to lead detective Capt. Dan Rottmueller of the Cincinnati Fire Department. A fire alarm sounded, but Kohls and Garner had no way out. An air conditioning unit blocked the only window in Kohls’ attic bedroom, and there was no fire escape.

Even if the window had not been blocked, the pair would have been faced with the choice of braving the stairwell or making a 30-foot leap onto cement pavement. Firefighters, who arrived less than four minutes after the 6:48 a.m. dispatch call, found the victims unconscious on the stairs outside the third-floor bedroom. “We believe the smoke got them when they opened the door,” Ann Garner said.

The property was in violation of the city’s housing code because no more than five non-related tenants are permitted in a single-family dwelling, according to Ed Cunningham, division manager of Cincinnati’s property maintenance code enforcement. Six tenants were named on the lease, Cunningham said, but a seventh may have been living in the basement. A home with six or more tenants is treated like a dormitory or fraternity house and is required to undergo the same stringent safety inspections. The owners might be required to install a fire escape or a second staircase that is “remote and separate” from the third level down to the second.

Cunningham said the home’s owner, Thomas Cleary of Mason, told investigators he did not know he was in violation of the housing code. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Cunningham said. No charges have been filed against Cleary, who could not be reached for comment.

Cunningham said the city is considering changes to the housing code, such as stipulating that at least one bedroom window should not be obstructed by bars, grills, grates, or air conditioning units.

Anne and Greg Kohls, Chad’s parents, also raised concerns about the brand of space heater, The Optimus H-5210, which Consumer Reports rated as a “Don’t Buy, Safety Risk,” stating it “was the only electric heater in our tests of 19 models that set our test cloth on fire.”

The Kohls do not blame their son’s housemate, who owned the space heater, for the tragedy. “He is such a sweet guy, and I feel like he is a victim too,” Anne Kohls said.

Families fight for fire safety

A letter-writing campaign, “Letters for Chad and Ellen,” has been started on Facebook, urging people to contact the Cincinnati City Council to demand improved fire safety on campus.

Quinlivan praised the victims’ families and friends for their activism such a short time after their loss: “I think it’s wonderful they are trying to channel a tragic event into some kind of positive change.”

The victims’ parents feel they owe that to their children, who were so hard-working, so full of life and promise.

Kohls, the oldest of four children, was close to his family and enjoyed camping, fishing and the outdoors. After an extended Christmas break packed with board games and family time, Kohls returned to Cincinnati because of his job at Chipotle.

A senior marketing major, Kohls recently had completed an internship with the Cincinnati Bengals. His parents described the 2009 Centerville High School graduate as an “independent spirit” who had found his element at UC. “His friends were like family,” Anne Kohls recalled. “They were great, great, kids. They would come and stay with us when he was in the the hospital. I understood why he loved living in Cincinnati so much.”

At Kohls’ memorial service Jan. 11, his former youth pastor, Kyle Rogers, described him as someone who was “so kind to everyone, no matter what.”

Garner’s parents knew she was headed for a successful career. She was a third-year fashion design student at the University of Cincinnati’s prestigious College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. She had just returned from New York City working for Garan, Inc. She had a strong work ethic paired with a bubbly personality.

“I started out very concerned about what her prospects might be. But as time went on, I could see, Ellen was going to get the job done. We have confidence that this was going somewhere for her,” Rod Garner said.

“She was a girl on a mission,” her mother said.

The couple said they have learned a lot about their nearly 21-year-old daughter since her passing Jan. 14. Friends of Garner, who graduated from Tippecanoe High School in 2010, have shared stories of her encouragement. “She made everyone feel like they were important to her,” Rod Garner said.

She had a passion for sewing, and she loved dogs, camping, traveling and her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Like Kohls, she chose to be an organ donor. Her family has learned that her kidneys went to two 8-year-old girls and her liver went to a 68-year-old man. Her heart valves were donated, as well, and the family will learn more in the coming weeks.

Tragedies unite families

Like the Garners and the Kohls, other area families have connected after experiencing tragedy. Two Cincinnati fathers were strangers before they lost their daughters in separate off-campus house fires. Dean Dennis lost his daughter, Andrea, in a fire started by an arsonist at OSU on April 13, 2003. Doug Turnbull’s daughter, Julie, was killed at Miami University on April 10, 2005.

They have found a common calling to educate fire chiefs, city councils and everyone they can about photoelectric smoke detectors — a newer technology capable of detecting fires earlier.

Photoelectric detectors can also detect smoldering fires, the type that occurred near Miami. There were 17 ionized smoke detectors in the house when the fire broke out from a cigarette discarded in a couch on the porch. Most of them worked, but they sounded too late for the students to get out. As painful as it is to think about, Turnbull said he believes if just one of those had been photoelectric, the three students would still be alive.

“I do this work so other parents don’t have to get that heartbreaking phone call,” Turnbull said. “I do it for Julie.”

Still, Dennis and Turnbull are astounded by the resistance in the industry and government to require the more technologically-advanced alarms. They have testified before councils and fire chiefs, attended meetings as far as California and continued researching the subject.

But the fathers said more needs to be done, and more laws must be enacted requiring photoelectric alarms, which cost just $12 and are less likely to be disconnected by residents because of nuisance alarms.

“Andrea and Julie, I think they would be proud that their dads are looking at what happened to them and making sure this doesn’t happen to other families,” Dennis said.

Universities try to educate students living on campus about fire safety, with evacuation drills, training on using fire extinguishers and even simulations with theatrical smoke, but they have little resources in connecting with students living in rentals near campus. And students living off campus are known to remove the batteries from their smoke detectors — still a common problem near Miami University despite regular inspections of rental properties by the city.

“It’s very challenging to try to explain to somebody who’s 18 or 19 years old that they’re vulnerable,” said Dan Bertsos, director of residence life and housing at Wright State University.

Students often have the attitude of “that won’t happen to me,” he said. “When the reality is, it can happen to anybody.”

Common loss, common faith, common cause

Anne and Greg Kohls and Ann and Rod Garner did not know each other — or each others’ children — before the New Year’s Day fire. Now they share a tragic bond, and a common cause in promoting fire safety on college campuses. Both are comforted by a deep religious faith as well as strong support from their communities.

“We can’t believe all the support,” Greg Kohls said.

The Garners also find comfort in knowing they will meet Ellen in Heaven. “We view this as just a temporary separation from Ellen. What helps me is my confidence that she is with God,” Rod Garner said.

“Out of this, God showed up in a huge way,” Ann Garner said. “He has used Ellen’s and Chad’s passing for his glory and for whatever else it is he is looking for Greg and Anne Kohls and us to do.”

“We still have a lot of pain, but we also have peace, because we know that God is in control,” Anne Kohls said. “His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are higher than ours.”

Ann Garner said that her older son was grown and “Ellen was our baby. Everybody’s prayers are the only thing that gets us out of bed, day by day, hour by hour.”

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