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Fire, fatality leave many questions among the ashes

Aug. 18, 2011

"Chaotic" is the word the Wauwatosa fire chief used to describe the scene of a house fire that ended in a fatality today.

Any fire is unpredictable and dangerous but when the possibility of gunfire gets added to the mix, it's taken to another level, Chief Rob Ugaste said.

"There's no way to prepare yourself to have someone shooting at you," he said.

No one did shoot at firefighters, but they were convinced they heard gunfire while trying to rescue the adult son living at 1430 N. 119 St. His mother had made it out of the home and told emergency responders that he was still inside.

"As they neared the top of the stairs they yelled 'Fire Department' and heard nothing in response," the fire chief said. "Then they heard what they thought to be gunfire, so they backed out."

The possibility of a shooter led police to send out an alert advising people along 119th and Cherry streets to stay in their home, Lt. Gerald Witkowski said.

Members of the police Special Response Team brought out their shields to protect firefighters as they moved around the scene, Witkowski added. For at least an hour, the firefighters lobbed water over roofs as they stood in neighbors' yards and tried to stay out of direct line of sight of the house.

The mother said she believed there were fireworks and a weapon in the house, Ugaste said.

After time passed and no one heard additional sounds of shots, fire crews were allowed closer and the fire was eventually extinguished during the afternoon.

A body was found late this afternoon, but fire and police officials would not confirm if it was the son. The medical examiner is expected to conduct an autopsy tomorrow.

"There are just so many unanswered questions," Ugaste said.

One of those questions is what ignited the fire. The blaze was quite involved with firefighters able to see thick black smoke through the trees as they pulled out of the Watertown Plank Road station at 8:57 a.m. A neighbor had reported the fire. The captain who surveyed the scene saw heavy fire blowing out the upstairs windows in the back of the house. Numerous fire departments from other communities provided support and Oak Creek brought its command unit for police and fire officials to use.

Other questions: Why couldn't the son get out of the house and what was behind the gunshot sounds? So far, no weapon has been found but there's a large area that still needs to be shifted through, Ugaste said.

The state fire marshal arrived and will take over as lead investigator, but police and fire investigators will remain involved as an analysis of the scene continues tomorrow.

As for the house, it is a complete loss. The roof burned off the house and extensive structural damage made it unsafe to walk onto the second floor, Ugaste said.

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