'Person of interest' questioned in Detroit fire that killed 5

DETROIT, MICH. - A fire fueled by high winds tore through an apartment complex in Detroit on  Wednesday afternoon, killing five people and injuring four.

Fire officials said they haven't yet determined how the fire started, but said they were questioning a person of interest Wednesday evening.

None of the victims were immediately identified but neighbors told the Free Press that many of the people who live in the destroyed building are longtime, older residents.

The bodies of four people were found on the second floor on the two-story, orange brick apartment building in the 10500 block of Whittier, near I-94 and Cadieux, Deputy Detroit Fire Commissioner David Fornell said. Their genders and ages are not yet known.

The fifth victim, a 61-year-old man, was pulled from the burning building by firefighters who worked to revive him. He was taken to a hospital where he died, Fornell said.

Four other people were taken to a hospital for treatment.  A 67-year-old man being treated for second-degree burns and smoke inhalation is in critical condition. A 56-year-old man who suffered hand lacerations is  in serious condition.  A 70-year-old man and a 52-year-old woman were treated for smoke inhalation and released.

“The building was destroyed,” Fornell said. He said it is some type of group home.

It’s not yet known what caused the fire that was reported about  1:30 p.m., he told the Free Press.

Fornell said a joint police-fire arson task force had detained and were questioning "a person of interest" Wednesday evening. He declined to provide additional details, citing the ongoing investigation. He said the person, a man, is not under arrest in connection with the fire.

Wind gusts topped more than 60 m.p.h. in the area Wednesday.  The weather hampered firefighters and contributed to one of the busiest days they've had in years, Fornell said.


The roof of the building started to collapse, so firefighters had to be very careful entering, Fornell explained.

The American Red Cross is helping people who have been impacted.

Sea Thomas, 29, and her mother Marion Thomas, 62, live in the house directly behind the building.

They let their dog out about 1:20 p.m. and noticed the animal was acting antsy and sniffing the air along the wooden privacy fence in their backyard.

Sea Thomas said as she moved closer to the two-story building, she realized it was on fire and started knocking on first-floor windows trying to alert residents to get out of the burning building.

The pair said someone inside the complex broke out glass from the second-story, rear corner unit. Flames then shot out and over the roof, whipped by the wind, they said.

“The flames were jumping. The smoke was so thick it was just rolling,” Marion Thomas said. “You couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black.”

Neighbors said they called 911 multiple times but couldn’t get through.

Sea Thomas said she eventually jumped in her car and drove to a fire station that’s a few blocks away to alert firefighters.

“I saw smoke coming out of it, and I tried calling 911,” said Ann Westbrook, who also lives near the building.  She said she tried calling multiple times, but the phone just rang and rang before she finally got through.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's office sent out a news release Wednesday asking residents to only call 911 for emergency situations.

"Due to severe wind conditions, power outages have occurred for many residents and businesses," an email said. "Those experiencing power outages should report them to DTE Energy at 800-477-4747 and are asked to keep 911 open for emergencies requiring EMS, Police or Fire services."

Because of the tremendous call volume, there were some delays, Fornell said.

The weather, he said, caused havoc across the city. Down power led to fires then fires spread to other buildings.

The Detroit Fire Department activated two reserve engine companies Wednesday afternoon to provide more resources to respond to fires.

“We’ve had fire after fire,” Fornell said. “It’s been horrendous.”

Detroit Free Press


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