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Cause of fatal fire under investigation

The cause of a residential fire that claimed the life of an Ellsworth man early last week remains under investigation.

Daniel J. O'Brien, 39, died in the blaze at 244 S. Piety St. in the village, reported to authorities around 4:15 a.m. Jan. 21. The brick two-story older residence serving as a duplex, the upstairs of which was occupied by O'Brien as a renter, was totally destroyed. Two downstairs occupants got out safely.

Bob Powell of the state fire marshal's office in Eau Claire declined to provide any details about the fatal fire while the investigation is ongoing.

"I anticipate a lengthy investigation," Powell said Thursday, refusing to specify an exact time for it to be concluded. His office's role is to assist the Ellsworth Police Department, he added.

Police Chief Greg Place said the fire's cause and origin are still to be determined. The local police department contacted the fire marshal's office early during the morning the blaze occurred, and a representative from that office joined officers on-scene most of that day and the next. An agent from Milwaukee spent the second day with them, too.

An occupant in a neighboring residence just to the north called 9-1-1 to initially report the fire, the police chief said. When police and sheriff's deputies, who were first to respond, arrived at the location near Piety and Strickland streets, smoke and fire was visible. The structure was fully engulfed when the Ellsworth Fire Department arrived.

Once fire fighters were able to enter the building, they found and removed the victim, Place said. Fire Chief Brent Langer said the victim was carried down a ladder and turned over to a crew from the Ellsworth Ambulance Service, which also responded.

O'Brien was pronounced dead at the scene by Pierce County Medical Examiner Susan Dzubay. An autopsy was performed by the Ramsey County (Minn.) Coroner's Office in St. Paul.

Preliminary review indicated O'Brien died of carbon monoxide poisoning and soot inhalation from the fire, Dzubay said. However, she won't rule on the manner of death until the final autopsy report is available, perhaps in as soon as four weeks, and is awaiting toxicology results.

Dzubay understood O'Brien was at a second-level window where glass was broken and was trying to get out of the building when the fire was reported.

Twenty-seven fire fighters battled the blaze, the fire chief said. They worked in below-freezing temperatures, outfitted with air packs and climbing ladders. Later, they employed the EFD's aerial ladder truck for an overhead attack on the fire, with extinguishing made difficult by the residence's brick exterior and steel roof, trapping the heat.

Two department members on the initial entry team were treated for minor burns and were doing okay late last week, Langer said. One fire crew member broke a pair of glasses. Fire fighters were on the scene for 13 hours and streets in the vicinity were closed until late in the afternoon the day of the blaze. The property continued to be surrounded by sheriff's line in the following days.

A debriefing session for the responders was held Wednesday, the fire chief said. Local fire department members have only been through a few fires of such nature, he said, and the session enabled them to speak their minds.

"We need to lean on each other," he said.

The last fatal fire in the village officials associated with the police or fire departments could recall happened at the former Most's Tavern in East Ellsworth. Assistant Fire Chief Gerald DeWolfe said two young girls, whom he believed were ages eight and 13, perished in that early 1970s blaze. DeWolfe remembered two trees being planted near Hillcrest Elementary School in their memory.

As for the burned-out shell standing from last week's Piety Street fire, DeWolfe, who's also Ellsworth Village President, said there's a local ordinance regulating its removal. Once the investigation is complete and the property released, the owner will have 30 days to arrange to remove it or the village will handle removal and bill the owner for that work.