Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Apartment fire kills visitor

By Janice Morse, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and David Eck, Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Firefighters search out hot spots inside of Vince's New Center Cafe on Vine Street in Elmwood Place Tuesday morning.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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In a pair of fires that Interstate 75 commuters could easily spot Tuesday morning, a Camp Washington man was killed and two Elmwood Place businesses were destroyed.

The Elmwood Place fire, which caused about $500,000 damage, was reported just after 6 a.m. in the 6200 block of Vine Street.

Firefighters found dense smoke in the T-shirts by Jay store. Heavy fire then quickly erupted; flames spread to the other side of the building, which housed Vince's New Center Cafe.

Across the street, Vince Valentino could only watch as firefighters poured water and sifted through the burned remains of the bar he has owned for 35 years. "A building like that's a part of you," Valentino said.

One unidentified firefighter was treated at University Hospital for dehydration. The fire's cause remained under investigation, but it was not believed to be suspicious.

[IMAGE] Cincinnati fire investigator Capt. Dan Rottmueller looks for the cause of a two-alarm fire in Camp Washington that killed one man Tuesday morning.
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In the Camp Washington blaze, Steven M. Conatser, 25, was pronounced dead at 2957 Massachusetts Ave., where he was visiting.

John See, who lives in the other half of the duplex at 2959 Massachusetts, said if it hadn't been for his friend, Amanda Cooper, he might have perished, too.

Cooper had just dropped off her husband at his Camp Washington workplace. She was driving along Colerain Avenue, headed toward her downtown office job around 7 a.m., when she noticed black smoke billowing from the neighborhood where she had once lived. Cooper followed the trail - and was astounded to discover that See's rented duplex was ablaze.

She honked her car's horn until See came to the door. "I'm yelling, 'The house is on fire! Get out!' " said Cooper, 43, of Aurora, Ind.

"She saved us. She really did," said See, 53. He said his half of the duplex lacked a working smoke detector or alarm. "I was in a deep sleep. If she hadn't woken us up, we wouldn't have made it," he said. "Flames were shooting out, like a big volcano going off; windows were popping."

See, his pregnant daughter, two grandchildren and three dogs escaped the fire.

Conatser, the man who died, was visiting See's next-door neighbor, Joetta Lickteig, 40. She was taken to University Hospital for treatment. A man who shares an apartment in Lickteig's half of the three-story, gray-and-white duplex, Mike Labuzinski, 49, escaped with no apparent injuries.

The American Red Cross is providing emergency housing, food and clothing for the six survivors.

Officials said Lickteig's cat had not been found but may have perished in the blaze, which caused $60,000 damage.

A preliminary investigation revealed its cause: a burning candle left unattended in the living room, said Cincinnati Fire Capt. Dan Rottmueller.

Conatser was the city's third fire fatality this year. Firefighter Oscar Armstrong III died March 21 in a Bond Hill flashover. Eric Meyer, 25, of Clifton died in a May 29 apartment fire. Rottmueller said that fire's cause is undetermined.

As firefighters doused the Camp Washington blaze, a church youth group, which was sprucing up a house and yard two doors down, gathered in an impromptu prayer circle on grass across the street.

"One of the firefighters said it was really neat to come up to a fire scene and see a group of 16 girls and guys out sitting out here praying," said Marv Dykema, 51, a coordinator of the church group from Ada, Mich.

Dykema said he and the others prayed for the safety of the firefighters and the building's occupants.

"Unfortunately, someone lost their life," he said. "It really opens these kids' eyes to how precious life is - and how quickly this life can come to an end."

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