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Sunday, April 29,2012

It's all great fun... until somebody puts an eye out

House fire shuts down street fest early

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Joel Bissell
Photo Caption: A fest attendee, left, is escorted away from 11 Palmer St., which caught on fire at about 7:08 p.m. Saturday in the basement of the house, which can be seen in the back to the right. She wasn't being arrested but rather may have inhaled some smoke, officials said.
While Palmer Fest in Athens is never exactly sedate, some years it's more tranquil than others.

This year, however, wasn't one of the calmer ones for the annual student street festival, which attracts thousands of students and others to dozens of crowded house, porch and yard parties.

While probably not as bad as 2010, when students lighted couches on fire in the street and bombarded police and firefighters with bottles, Palmer Fest 2012 did feature a fire in a rental house, which led to the party being shut down as a riot before 8 p.m., and police agencies making multiple arrests. The block party ended about four hours earlier than usual.

The fire was quickly brought under control, though the house is reportedly uninhabitable from smoke and fire damage. County records indicate that an Athens woman owns the house as a trustee.

No one was injured, according to authorities; Ohio University will help relocate the students rendered homeless by the fire.

The fire and its aftermath are likely to renew calls for the university and/or city to put an end to the annual block parties, though how exactly that would be accomplished is unclear. Next year, with OU on its new semester system, any spring block parties will have to occur at least two weeks earlier than usual. The last day of spring semester classes is April 27.

While firefighters dealt with the blaze, Palmer Street was packed with police from multiple agencies in full riot gear, some of them mounted on horses. All were ordering students repeatedly to clear the area, as the crowd chanted and whooped phrases like "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and "Yeah, baby, let's go!"

A young woman who claimed to have been inside 11 Palmer is captured on raw video footage recounting how she and fellow partiers were told that the basement of the house was on fire. Gripping a half-empty bottle of an alcoholic beverage, the woman cheerfully recalls how she began laughing, and then recommended drinking a shot to celebrate the fire.

(The video at right, covering the whole fest weekend, was shot by Sway the Crowd Productions for The Athens NEWS. Sway the Crowd's raw footage of the Palmer Fest house fire and aftermath is in the second video below.)

According to a city official, crowd members at the alcohol-fueled student block party once again, as they have in past years, interfered with firefighters when they came to douse the blaze.

"When (police) advised everyone to move (out of the area) they started to get a little rowdy," reported Ron Lucas, Athens deputy service-safety director. He said this included throwing bottles and even trying to interfere with a fire hose as it was being uncoiled from a fire truck.

Though students voiced considerable feistiness at being ordered to clear the area, Lucas said the street and some adjoining streets were eventually emptied. Police also went house to house and asked partiers to clear the area.

Athens Police, assisted by other agencies, reported that they arrested 28 people Saturday, most for either disorderly by intoxication or underage consumption.

Police had reported taking 16 arrestees to jail Friday, most of them apparently in connection with "Palmer Place Fest." This event, centered at the student apartment complex of the same name located off of Stimson Avenue, started the weekend's festivities rolling on Friday night.

Overall, the city reported Sunday afternoon, arrests as tallied from the booking sheets totaled 28.

Most police arrests were predictably for alcohol-related offenses, but they also included one each for persistent disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The latter arrest may well be one that's captured in the online video, which shows two police officers wrestling a man to the ground in the middle of Palmer Street as he tries to escape their grasp.

At another point in the clip, officers can be seen carting another man off horizontally by his arms and legs. The man has a wide grin on his face.

State liquor agents from the Ohio Investigative Unit reportedly made arrests 30 arrests leading to 35 charges Friday, and 50 arrests leading to 65 charges Saturday. These included one arrest for misconduct at an emergency.

The house fire, which the Athens Fire Department is calling suspicious in origin, was reported around 7:05 p.m., and Mayor Paul Wiehl, largely because of the fire and the hostile attitude of the crowd, declared Palmer Street a riot area 30 minutes later, giving police authority to clear it. The area affected included not only Palmer, but the back yards of Hocking and Kurtz streets, as well as Mill Street south of Palmer.

Smoke could be seen pouring out of an upper-story window at the house. The house was never engulfed, and the fire was contained by 8:30 p.m.

Lucas said Sunday that the fire department is calling the fire suspicious mainly because firefighters who inspected the house did not see any obvious way it could have started without human intervention, such as a faulty wire. It is still under investigation.

During the fire, according to a city news release, there was also a medical emergency, apparently unrelated to the fire, which required EMS response.

Lucas said Sunday that he does know of one person found unresponsive near the scene, but this was apparently from drinking too much, and the person was revived. Though a rumor has been circulating about someone falling from an upper story of a house, Lucas said he has heard nothing about such an incident.


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It is understandable that young people like to let loose, have fun, and enjoy themselves once in a while.  But let’s face it, huge parties (and I mean huge!) in neighborhoods where drugs and alcohol are abused to the extreme should not be tolerated.  Why, why, why does the city tolerate the taking over of streets and neighborhoods for the purpose of turning them into unmanageable drunk fests? Not only does this give the City of Athens and Ohio University a horrible reputation, with people pointing and laughing at how stupid we are, but these fests create very real dangerous situations.  Not long ago Athens was considered one of the best places in the country to live.  But this is changing.  The original portion of the bike path is neglected and falling apart, uptown (and nearby neighborhoods) are littered with trash almost every morning, and the city allows local and out-of-town drunken partiers to rule neighborhoods making them into open air saloons.  Is this the Athens we want?  Tolerance is good to an extent, but we have passed the limits of what is acceptable.  Unsafe neighborhoods are not acceptable. A pathetic reputation for the City and the University should not be acceptable.  Drunken drug abuse with puking in the streets of our neighborhoods should not be acceptable.  The buring of furnture in our streets, not to mention houses themselves, should not be acceptable.   What the *&&% is our problem!  Why is this tolerated?



It will require some intestinal fortitude by our elected/appointed city leaders to take control of public safety again.

These fests should have been stopped when they started years ago when OU outsourced the problem to the city by banning them on campus. But no, the city leaders have always chosen to appease the students who feel they have a right to have these drunken parties that cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in police/fire overtime.

Now we appear ready to appease them again because city leaders fear if they actually show some backbone and take control of the city the students will riot (like they have several times in the past). In other words, these students (not ALL students by any means) have the city under their control, rather than the city being able to ensure public safety by controling the bad behavior by some students (and their guests).

It's pathetic. City leaders need to start acting as if they are in charge, are truly concerned with public safety, and are willing to stop wasting limited tax dollars. They need to stop these events once and for all. If they do not, we deserve what we keep getting - chaos. One of these days someone will likely be seriously injured or killed. 

Oh, and for our trouble we have the added benefit of being the laughing stock of the state and beyond. Well done city leaders, well done.