Investigators: No foul play in Garrettsville blaze

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FROM STAFF REPORTS

Garrettsville -- 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 on March 22, although an official cause is still unknown.

Jeff Koehn, an arson investigator with the State Fire Marshal, said March 24 no foul play is suspected as the source of the blaze. The fire is still under investigation, and it could take several weeks before the official cause may be determined, he said.

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Koehn said it is known that roofers were working with a torch in one of the buildings, but fire investigators are not saying the work was related to the fire.

Garrettsville "is devastated by the happenings of the fire," said Village Mayor Rick Patrick at a March 23 press conference.

He thanked 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. We are strong, we will remain strong and we will rebuild."

Friess 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 too soon to give a damage estimate," Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson Fire Chief Dave Friess said. "I couldn't even give you a ballpark [estimate]."

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.

He said the age of the buildings involved -- the Buckeye Building dates to 1850 -- 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.

"There was some type of roof collapse 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.

"Everybody was great. Everybody worked together well," he said. "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."

Friess said he is "still taking it in; we still have a task to accomplish."

State Routes 82 and 88 were closed with "minimal disruption" and area police officers helped reroute traffic around the village on the day of the fire.

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