Owner of building at 615 East St. was working to renovate before weekend fire.
ELKHART — Four days after fire heavily damaged half a block of the historic State Division neighborhood and left three people critically injured, investigators have not determined a cause.
Investigators believe it started inside a small store at 615 East St., quickly consumed the building and then spread. Fire severely damaged an apartment building to the north and the Lifeline — Youth for Christ community building to the south.
Adam Brinckman, the owner of the store who has been renovating the property in hopes of turning it into a business, said he thinks the fire might have started from an electrical line strewn from the apartment building that rested on his building.
Elkhart Fire investigator Kent Stouder said investigators have some leads and are following up on them, but declined to speculate on possible causes.
The fire started about 2 a.m. Sunday morning and took more than two hours to bring under control.
Stouder said Brinckman has offered more than one idea on how the fire started and down played the chances that an electrical short was to blame.
“A little spark doesn’t get a building fully involved in that short of a time — not without some help,” Stouder said.
Stouder said he’s been told explosions were heard coming from the store.
Brinckman told The Truth Wednesday that there were no flammable items in the house at the time.
Stouder said that’s the “opposite of what he told me,” adding that Brinckman told him there was gasoline and LP fuel for a grill stored inside the building.
Rampant talk in the neighborhood is that somebody may have been cooking methamphetamine in the building and that a person was seen running down the alley about the time the fire broke out.
Stouder declined to discuss specific theories.
Brinckman said he doesn’t believe the fire was started by somebody cooking meth in his building.
Brinckman said the building was secured and that he had just recently installed motion detectors to keep intruders out.
He said he has had a few minor break-ins at the property since he bought it in April of 2011 for $3,746.
“I really don’t believe that,” Brinckman said, referring to fire being linked to meth.
“I had that place sealed up tighter than a frog’s butt,” he said.
Brinckman had been renovating the building off and on for more than a year with the hopes of opening a convenience store on the first floor and a living area upstairs.
The small brick building was once known as Tony’s Shoe Repair.
But the property had been the subject of concerns for neighbors and city code enforcement in recent months.
City officials considered the building to be unsafe. It lacked electricity, gas and water.
Stouder said he was told some portions of the floors were supported with jacks and that the interior stairs had been removed and access to the second floor could only be gained with a ladder.
Jim Holtz, building inspector for the Elkhart, said city officials had heard complaints alleging people were living in the building.
Code enforcement investigated and posted an order about a month ago prohibiting people from occupying the store during renovations.
Holtz said an inspection of the property had been scheduled for last week, but was canceled because Brinckman did not show up.
A hearing on the property’s fate had been scheduled for Wednesday, he said.
Holtz said Brinckman’s property had illegally tapped into Lifeline’s electrical service when it was inspected a month ago.
Brinckman denied that accusation.
His wife, Heather, said they had stayed in the building twice.
She said they had moved their clothes and other belongings into the building from a storage unit to save money.
Most of the time, they had been saying with friends. On Wednesday, they were staying in a motel.
Brinckman said he was upset with the decision by officials to knock down the damaged brick walls and bulldoze the rubble into the basement.
Stouder said the decision was made for public safety and said the walls were unstable.
Stouder said the decision probably didn’t help with the investigation, but added, most of the contents were “probably burnt beyond recognition.”
“Everything was so far gone and burned up, there wasn’t anything to look at anyway,” he said.
Victims of the fire were in the rear apartment downstairs of the apartment building at the corner of East and Division streets.
A family of five living in the front of the building and another man living upstairs escaped without injury after the building caught fire. The apartment in back only had an exit facing the store, he said.
Two firemen also suffered minor injuries.