Authorities searched the ruins of an Elkridge house yesterday for clues to whether a fire that killed a still unidentified man Friday was arson or a fatal accident.
Neighbors told investigators that the fire began after a kerosene heater was thrown during an argument in the house in the 5800 block of Race Road, although the State Fire Marshal's Office and Howard County Police still are investigating.
"We don't really know what happened yet," said Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Allen L. Ward. "From the information we had early on, there is a kerosene heater that is alleged to have been thrown, but we're not sure that is correct."
The fire marshal's office identified the two people inside the house at the time of the blaze as Diane Border, 46, and John Jacobs, 46. No permanent address was known for either of them.
Ms. Border escaped the fire and has cooperated with investigators, but Mr. Jacobs remains unaccounted for. The owner of the house, Glenwood Brodgen, was not present at the time of the fire and could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The State Medical Examinerwas expected to positively identify the burned male body after conducting an autopsy, probably with the aid of dental records, Deputy Chief Ward said. It was not known when those results would become available.
A police spokesman said detectives have classified their inquiry as a "death investigation involving a fatal fire." A ruling of whether the death was a homicide will not be made until fire investigators decide if the fire was intentionally set, he said.
Deputy Chief Ward said he was not sure when the investigation would be completed.
Neighbors told investigators that they heard a man and a woman arguing before the start of the fire, which was reported about 5:45 p.m. Friday and that a kerosene heater was thrown during that argument. Fire investigators believe that the blaze began in the kitchen of the house.
fTC By the time firefighters arrived, "fire was coming out of every window of the small, two-story house," said Lt. Michael Baker, a Howard County Fire and Rescue Services spokesman.
Although neighbors told firefighters that a man was believed to be trapped inside, the intense heat from the blaze prevented anyone from entering, Lieutenant Baker said.
"The roof started to collapse in, and then everything started to collapse and there was nothing that could be done," he said.
More than 60 firefighters were needed to extinguish the fire. Investigators were unable to enter the house until about four hours after the blaze started, and the man's burned body was found about 11 p.m. inside the basement.
At the scene of the fire yesterday, three investigators combed through the rubble for more than four hours, taking samples from the remains of what had been a two-story wood frame house. A dog trained to sniff for gasoline and other flammable liquids also searched the site.
During the weekend, investigators found one kerosene heater in the debris, but deputy fire marshals continued searching for two more heaters believed to have been in use in the house, Deputy Chief Ward said.
Among the contents strewn around the house's broken brick foundation yesterday were a charred and twisted bedspring and appliances burned beyond recognition. Three abandoned cars and at least a half-dozen tires sat undisturbed in the front yard.
Damage to the house and its contents was estimated at $80,000, Lieutenant Baker said.