Suspect arrested in apartment blaze that killed 5

Christine Ferretti, and Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

A suspect in the arson that killed five people at a Detroit group home on Wednesday has been arrested, authorities confirmed.

The suspect is a 55-year-old resident of the facility, said Officer Jennifer Moreno, a Detroit Police Department spokeswoman, and police believe that the fire stemmed from an argument, but they're not sure what is was about or how it originated.

One resident described the Detroit group home as a forsaken place, a last stop for the dispossessed.

And it was there, a ramshackle, two-story brick building, where five people perished and four others were injured during a fire Wednesday afternoon.

The east-side building held eight apartments, most occupied by one or two male adults being treated for substance abuse or mental issues, said resident Marcelleus Thomas.

“Our families didn’t want us. This was the last place for us to go,” said Thomas, 54, who returned from an appointment to see his home ablaze.

Flames stoked by high winds raced through the complex, forcing four residents to jump from second-floor windows, said fire officials.

The cause of the fire, which began in a second-floor apartment, hasn’t been determined, said David Fornell, Detroit deputy fire commissioner.

Among the dead was a 61-year-old man, said Fornell. Ages and genders of the other victims, who were found on the second floor, were not immediately available.

As for the injured, a 67-year-old man with 2nd-degree burns on his face was in critical condition Wednesday night while a 56-year-old man with severe cuts on his hand was in serious condition, said Fornell. A 70-year-old man and 52-year-old woman were treated for smoke inhalation and released.

None of the victims have been identified.

“My heart goes out to the families. This is tragic,” said Eric Jones, Detroit fire commissioner. “They tried valiantly to rescue these individuals.”

Jesse McIntosh was asleep on his living room couch when he was awakened by cries of fire, he said. When he opened the door to his apartment, he was met by a wall of smoke.

Reaching out his arms, he felt his way along the hallway until he got outside.

“I couldn’t see. I had to fight my way out,” said McIntosh, 54.

Thomas was returning home from the Northeast Guidance Center, a Detroit community services facility, when he saw the flashing lights of fire trucks. He thought someone had been shot.

The truth was more stunning, he said.

“I don’t know how to feel. It’s a tragedy,” he said.

If it hadn’t been for his appointment, Thomas would have been home, he said. That’s where he spends most of his time.

He counted himself lucky.

“If I hadn’t gone, I would be dead,” he said.

The blustery day, when wind gusts reached 60 mph, stoked the fire, said Fornell. The fire raced through the building with flames leaping far from an outside window.

Smoke covered the entire city block around the building, he said.

“The weather certainly made a difference,” he said. “It just torched the fire through the building.”

The windy day had firefighters scrambling all over the city, including a garage fire two blocks from the apartment building, said Fornell. A brush fire was fed by winds on St. Aubin near Forest.

The weather triggered a high-wind warning and knocked out power to more than 600,000 customers, according to DTE and Consumer’s Energy. Winds downed electrical wires throughout Metro Detroit, toppled trees and fed fires.

“The weather is affecting everyone citywide,” said Jones. “We have our hands full. It’s been nonstop since this storm started.”

The Fire Department was alerted to the blaze at 10521 Whittier at 1:25 p.m. and crews were dispatched two minutes later, said fire officials. The first unit arrived on the scene at 1:33 p.m.

The shooting flames and unstable, collapsing building prevented firefighters from reaching four others inside, Jones said

Firefighters pulled one male from the complex who had no pulse and resuscitated him, Jones said. Emergency crews continued CPR on the way to the hospital but he died.

A personal guidance unit was called to the site to counsel the firefighters, said Mike Nevin, head of the Detroit fire fighters union.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross helped displaced residents find shelter.

The apartment building, already a forsaken place, has turned even sadder, said Thomas.

It sits next to two churches, Full Gospel of Jesus Christ Ministries and Second Greater Peace MB Church.

Wednesday was a busy day for the Detroit Fire Department, with 64 working fires and 82 calls for downed power lines. There were 177 firefighters on duty on the shift that started at 8 a.m. and eight more were called in throughout the day to help. Last week, Fornell said, the city averaged about eight fires per day.

"Our people really stepped up," Fornell said, missing out on "rehab," the time firefighters are given to return to the station after a fire, gather themselves and put on some dry clothes. It usually lasts 20 minutes to an hour, but on Wednesday there was no time to rest.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell