Photo Caption: After the house fire broke out during Palmer Fest Saturday, police face off against masses of partiers on Palmer Street.
Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl and Ohio University President Roderick McDavis released a joint statement Thursday condemning what happened at last weekend's Palmer Fest block party. Local police forcibly shut down the crowded fest after a house fire broke out amid the throngs of party-goers.
The president and mayor also invited campus and community members to attend a related town hall meeting for this coming Wednesday (May 9) "to discuss these serious issues and answer questions."
No injuries resulted from the fire, and the house sustained moderate damage, mainly from smoke.
The annual block party attracts thousands of OU students and their out-of-town guests to a coordinated string of house parties up and down Palmer Street, in the heart of Athens' most concentrated student neighborhood. Palmer Fest is the biggest of several student-oriented street fests that occur every spring in Athens.
This year's Palmer Fest was broken up and shut down several hours earlier than usual after a house fire broke out at 11 Palmer St. What happened at that point was described in a news release issued Saturday night by Ron Lucas, deputy service-safety director for the city:
"The fire department's ability to extinguish the structural fire was impeded by a hostile crowd. In order for the fire department to access the structure and to protect public safety, it was necessary for the police to move the crowd away from the structure. The crowd resisted and began throwing bottles at the emergency responders and interfered with the fire hose deployment."
Shortly after, Mayor Paul Wiehl declared Palmer Street and the surrounding neighborhood a "riot area," and police quickly cleared the street and party houses, effectively shutting down the party.
In the aftermath of the block party debacle, the city and university have come under increasing pressure to "ban" future block parties or at least enact measures to better control them. City officials, however, have cited constitutional issues with actually banning the street fests, which occur nearly every weekend after the first month of spring quarter at OU.
This is the third time in four years the event has been shut down by police due to fires, either in a house (this year) or in the street.
Mayor Wiehl and President McDavis have planned the town hall meeting for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 9, at the West Portico of Memorial Auditorium on OU's College Green.
"In the wake of dangerous, illegal behaviors that took place in our community last weekend, newspapers and websites around the world 'opened a window' to Ohio University and Athens," the joint statement said. "These images and the unacceptable behaviors they displayed are an embarrassment. We are better than this."
Wiehl and McDavis wrote that people who live in Athens for a just few years or for a lifetime have "rejected these behaviors and their related distortion of what our community is about.
Speaking to campus and Athens community members, the release continued, "The city of Athens and Ohio University join with your friends and neighbors in condemning this behavior, which created life-threatening risks and harmed our community as a whole and each of us as individuals."
"We must come together to unwaveringly create and foster a safe and positive atmosphere for our community," they wrote in the statement. "Only then can we demonstrate who we truly are."
They said that all community members, including students, are encouraged to attend.
The State Fire Marshal has ruled the incident at 11 Palmer as an arson with up to a $5,000 reward attached for anyone providing information that leads to identification of the person or persons who set the fire.
According to a news release from the State Fire Marshal, investigators have determined that "someone broke into the basement of the home and set the fire." Further details, such as how the fire was set, are being withheld because the investigation is ongoing, the release said.
No one was injured in the fire, but agency spokesman Shane Cartmill said that this outcome could easily have been tragic.
"What started as probably a prank had the potential to go completely awry, and could have caused not only injuries, but could have cost lives," he said. Cartmill said his agency believes that with as many people as attended Palmer Fest, "somebody knows something about this fire. And we want them to come forward, and tell us who's responsible for this fire."
The house was occupied at the time of the fire, with one unidentified partier caught on video talking about noticing smoke coming from the basement and taking shots of liquor in honor of the fire before evacuating the premises.