Any possible criminal activity has been ruled out by Ohio's Division of State Fire Marshal investigators as a cause for the massive fire that leveled a block in downtown Garrettsville March 22, although an official cause is still unknown.
Jeff Koehn, an arson investigator with the State Fire Marshal, said no foul play is suspected as the source of the blaze.
The fire, which destroyed or displaced 13 businesses in downtown Garrettsville, is still under investigation, and it could take several weeks before the official cause may be determined, he said.
Koehn said it is known that roofers were working with a torch in one of the block's building March 22, but fire investigators are not saying the work was related to the fire.
State Fire Marshal investigators and the Garrettsville Police Department have requested that any citizens who took cell phones videos of the fire send the footage to Garrettsville police to look for possible clues.
Garrettsville "is devastated by the happenings of the fire," Village Mayor Rick Patrick said at a press conference March 23, while thanking the villagers, citizens and neighbors who have come together to support the emergency workers from the nearly 40 fire departments and police agencies that responded to what he said was the largest fire in village history.
"I just am overwhelmed," he said. "I've been trying to be strong. I want to be strong for Garrettsville. Garrettsville is strong, we will remain strong and we will rebuild."
Chief Dave Friess of the Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson Fire District said the investigation, which could take "two to three weeks," will include insurance costs and inventory lost by those businesses. The State Fire Marshal's Office, ATF and the Portage County Fire Investigation Unit are all involved, he said.
"It's took soon to give a damage estimate," Friess said. "I couldn't even give you a ballpark [estimate]."
Firefighters were still on scene March 23, dealing with hot spots. Friess said two firefighters, including one from his department, were treated for smoke inhalation, released from the hospital and are now recovering at home.
The fire initially was reported at 1:15 p.m. when "somebody ran into the [Garrettsville] police department and said the village was on fire," Friess said. No firefighters were on station in Garrettsville at the time -- the fire district is staffed Monday through Friday, with on-call staff available on weekends, he said.
Patrick estimated that 50 customers and employees were present in the affected businesses when the fire started -- including his wife, who was shopping at Shaker Tree at the time, he said.
He said the age of the buildings involved -- the Buckeye Building dates to 1850, he said -- along with the amount of times it was remodeled with double- and triple-roofs, open ceilings and spaces played a role in the speed with which the fire spread.
Friess said he couldn't comment on whether there was currently rehab work going on in the buildings or whether someone was doing work at the time. Where the fire started will also be part of the investigation.
"There was some type of roof collapse prior, during the snow and rain [this winter], but to my knowledge that was remedied temporarily," he said. "Our main concern was that everyone was out" along with the safety of firefighters and onlookers.
Fire departments from four counties eventually responded with personnel and equipment, including more than a dozen tanker trucks that trucked in water to support the village water system. Village residents and businesses may experience some low water pressure in the next few days, Friess said.
"Everybody was great. Everybody worked together well. We had great communications. Everyone had a task to do and they did that without any kind of complaining. It was awesome to have 34 [fire] departments here and everybody was able to work together. The camaraderie with everyone was great," he said.
Friess said he is "still taking it in. We still have a task to accomplish."
Garrettsville Police Chief Anthony Milicia said his agency was lucky as the nearby Hiram Police Department "immediately sent three officers, and then backed them up with a fourth" to help his officers with crowd and traffic control. Six Portage County sheriff's deputies, Portage County Sheriff David Doak and his command staff also lent help, including use of their mobile command center. Other officers helped cover regular patrol shifts and are maintaining security at the fire scene.
State routes 82 and 88 were closed with "minimal disruption" and officers helped re-route traffic around the village, Milicia said.
In downtown Garrettsville March 23, residents took stock of the aftermath, surveying the damages to the downtown business district.
Iva Walker, a retired social studies teacher, says that the law office of attorney Robert Mishler survived in part because it had a firewall installed in case the Buckeye Building caught fire. Emily Mason, whose mother works for attorney Kim Kohli, said they were trying to see what they could salvage from the law office.
The Nelson-Garrettsville Community Cupboard, a food pantry serving 80-plus families in the area, lost its office and all its food. Joe Leonard, a Nelson Township Trustee and co-founder of the Community Cupboard, said offers have come in for use of temporary facilities for the outreach program.
He said he hopes to have the food pantry up and running within a week.
"In a week or two, we'll be back on our feet again," Leonard said. "[The fire] is bringing the community together big time."
He said the community already has made substantial donations and that he has received multiple offers of help. Area churches are starting fund raisers, the James A. Garfield School District has offered assistance and the Center of Hope in Ravenna has offered to help the 80-plus families in need that were receiving support from the Nelson-Garrettsville Community Cupboard.
"We lost everything," Leonard says. "We looked in there today; nothing is recognizable."
Current needs include monetary donations, non-perishables, gloves and hats for kids, and paper products, he said.
"People are coming to our rescue from all over the place," Leonard said. "Community support has been absolutely beyond belief incredible."
Sky Plaza IGA owner Rich Hoffman says the Cub Scout Pack 62 will be at the store from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. today collecting dry food donations and cash donations from the registers. Brownie Troop 91010 and the Girl Scouts will be at IGA Thursday and Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Hoffman says that they expect to continue the cash and dry food donations for weeks to come, and expressed "our thoughts and prayers" for those affected by the fire.
"We'll do what we can to help the community," he said. "We're hometown proud."
"Everybody pulls together," IGA office clerk Jamie Binegar said. "Seeing this stuff on Facebook was devastating."
Also on March 23, several Portage County groups and agencies announced what they are doing to help out:
Donations to the victims of the fire may be made at Middlefield Bank on State Street in Garrettsville. The bank may be reached at 330-527-2121.
Monetary donations also can be mailed in care of the Nelson-Garrettsville Community Cupboard, P.O. Box 210 Garrettsville, OH 44231.
Non-perishable food items, household supplies, or monetary donations for the Nelson-Garrettsville Community Cupboard will be accepted at The Weekly Villager building, 8088 Main St.
Donations also can made to the Garrettsville United Methodist Church, 8223 Park Ave. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the phone number is 330-527-2055.
The Mental Health & Recovery Board at 155 E. Main St. in Kent is a collection spot for nonperishable food items. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
More information on how you can help also is available at the Garrettsville Area Chamber of Commerce website at garrettsvillearea.com/how-can-i-help.html. Those wishing to help may also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact O'Brien at 330-298-1128 or email@example.com and Woolf at 330-541-9448 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Dave O'Brien, Record-Courier