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Differing accounts of Franklin Street blaze complicate investigation

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Columbus firefighters describe the origin of a fire in a downtown boarding house Thursday as “suspicious,” Columbus Fire Department spokesman Capt. Mike Wilson said.

But it could take days to determine the cause of the fire that displaced 14 residents and destroyed the two-story building at 938 Franklin St.

“We’re still sorting it out,” fire investigator Matt Noblitt said Friday. “And if we come up with multiple ways the fire could have started — accidental or otherwise — the cause may end up as undetermined.”

At the fire scene, the building’s property manager Tom Clark said he believed the fire was intentionally set.

Noblitt said nothing had been ruled out as of Friday afternoon.

When the first firefighters arrived shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday, the entire front porch was on fire, Wilson said.

However, firefighters said there are differing accounts whether the blaze originated on the inside or the outside of the building.

A woman who lives across the street said she first saw flames inside a ground-floor room, Wilson said.

Boarding house occupant Bev Hughes, who also was outside, said she first saw the fire begin in mattresses that were stacked up on the front porch.

Hughes said she watched the flames spread from the porch to the exterior of the upstairs rooms and eventually to a low-hanging section of the roof on the building’s north side.

Once firefighters were confident all occupants were out of the building and safe, they discovered the fire had entered the attic space and was rapidly spreading, according to Columbus Fire Department Lt. Jake Barber.

Although firefighters removed portions of the interior ceilings to apply water, the fire continued to spread and flames began shooting through the roof, Barber said.

By 7:30 p.m., commanding Capt. Andy Lay determined smoke and fire conditions were too dangerous, and ordered all firefighters out of the building, Wilson said.

Within a half-hour of Lay’s order, two separate sections of the roof collapsed, Wilson said. No firefighters were injured. The flames were eventually brought under control by bringing in additional personnel and equipment and applying water from each corner of the structure, Wilson said.

The estimated value of the boarding house, owned by Monroe Pendleton, was $105,000, while content loss was believed to be about $30,000, Wilson said. The Red Cross was called in to provide assistance to displaced residents, but the agency couldn’t confirm whether lodging has been found for all tenants affected by the fire.

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