The on-site investigation of Country Villa apartments was completed early Tuesday afternoon, but interviews still had to be conducted, Crockery Township Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief John Kriger said.
“It’s undetermined at this point,” Kriger said about the cause.
The 3:35 a.m. Monday, fire gutted an unoccupied downstairs apartment at the Country Villa Apartments on the corner of State Road and 144th Avenue. It destroyed almost all of the possessions of the renter who was just starting the process of moving out, complex owner Doug Recker said.
“The first thing my wife said when we drove up here is ‘her boyfriend did this,’ Recker said. “That’s why she was moving.”
A tenant forced out of his apartment by the fire Monday morning said there were problems with his neighbor’s relationship.
“They had a big fight,” said Russell James as he stood out in the cold Monday morning. “He threatened her.”
James said his neighbor already moved out with her daughter, but still had to move her belongings.
It was the daughter’s bedroom that had flames coming out both windows when firefighters arrived at the scene. The room was fully involved, Kriger said.
The other downstairs apartment in the four-plex building was vacant. Adam Kiser, who lived above the burning apartment, was awakened by smoke. He got up, saw flames coming from the unit below, and then ran across to the other upstairs apartment to alert James.
Kiser was given a different apartment in the complex and spent most of the night moving what he could save, James said.
Investigators from the Spring Lake Township Fire Department and the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department were on the scene later in the day Monday, taking pictures and waiting to secure the apartment.
They returned Tuesday morning with an insurance investigator to begin digging through debris.
Kriger said a Michigan State Police K-9 officer was brought to the scene, but he didn’t know if the dog found anything.
The deputy chief wouldn’t say whether or not the dog was a normal procedure on a fire scene.
Grand Haven Township Fire Chief Tom Gerencer, who was not at the fire, said it was not a normal procedure.
Bringing a dog onsite means there might be suspicion of accelerant use, Gerencer said.
“When we had our own K-9 dog, we only used him three times in three years,” he added.
Gerencer said the normal procedure for a structure fire is to make sure all proper parties are notified and to wait until their investigators arrive before doing anything at the scene.
In the case of a kitchen fire, one might even have to wait for an investigator from the appliance manufacturers, he said.
Back at the apartment scene, the process was slow and tedious as investigators sent debris out the window, one shovel-full at a time.
Outside, a firefighter would rake through the debris, occasionally picking up something, such as a piece of glass, and handing it to one of the investigators. Gloves would come off. A camera was picked up. A photo was taken and then it was back to the shovel.
Kriger said the investigators look for everything they can to put the scene back together.
“Bolts from a couch, springs from a bed, anything they can to put stuff back in place,” he said.
Outside investigators were being used because Fire Chief Gary Dreyer was out of town, Kriger said.
It’s also normal to have someone from another department help because it gives everyone more experience, Gerencer noted.
“It’s difficult to get proficient if you don’t do enough, so they collaborate,” Gerencer said. “And that’s normal.”
Digging the fire is normal, even if you have a pretty good idea about where it started, he said.
“Until you do, you don’t know for sure where it started and how it started,” Gerencer said. “It sounds like everything they are doing is typical, other than the dog.”
Recker said he was glad that nobody was hurt in the fire.
“Everything else can be rebuilt. It’s just a building,” he said, adding that he didn’t have a damage estimate yet.