University of Dayton senior and football player Austin Cohen had been drinking. But he stopped and went to bed early one December night six years ago. The next day was important: His older brother Dustin, then a linebacker for the St. Louis Rams, was to play in a televised NFL game.
As Cohen slept upstairs in the off-campus house he shared with seven others, a party gathered steam on the ground floor. One of his housemates, a close friend, was trying to impress some girls by setting paper towels on fire on the stairs leading to the upper floors.
What was meant as a prank quickly became a full-blown fire. As flames spread in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 10, 2000, Cohen was heard screaming. Firefighters found him on his hands and knees on the floor of his bedroom, dead from smoke inhalation and burns, according to a coroner’s report. He apparently had tried to filter the smoke by pulling his shirt over his face.
The 21-year-old economics major known as AJ was one of 54 college students killed in off-campus fires since 2000, according to a USA TODAY study. Though such devastating fires are infrequent, they follow patterns that largely are preventable.
The circumstances of Cohen’s death are a template for this kind of tragedy, according to the study of published reports and public records. It occurred in an older, off-campus dwelling; students had been partying and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol; it was set intentionally; and students had disabled the smoke alarms that might have heralded the danger.
“This is a very typical scenario,” says Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a Massachusetts-based non-profit group. “These factors are there time and time again.”
Says Cohen’s mother, Donna Cohen of Sarasota, Fla.: “This is such senseless stuff. These universities have to wake up and realize these are children when they are 18. They are not adults. There has to be some responsibility there. As a parent you kind of turn your kids over to the university, trusting that they will be OK and that they will be protected somewhat.”
The house in which Cohen died was one of about 380 houses the school had purchased in residential areas for student housing. In its literature, the university calls the area near the south side of campus the “Student Neighborhood.” Students call it “The Ghetto.”
Thirty-nine of 43 fires since 2000 that killed college students erupted in off-campus housing, USA TODAY’s study shows. The Dayton, Ohio, house was one of 20 in the study built before 1921.
University of Dayton officials say they keep a close eye on underclassmen in dormitories where smoke alarms are connected to emergency dispatch centers, sprinkler systems are more common, and fire drills are performed.
But upperclassmen often choose to live off campus, where Comeau says safety codes are harder for schools to enforce. Tax records show Cohen’s house sat in a neighborhood where houses owned by Dayton landlords mingle with school-owned properties.
The city had inspected the house, found it met safety codes and licensed it as a rooming house, says John Baker, manager of the city’s housing inspection division. As with private houses, smoke detectors were required, he says. There was no sprinkler system, which Dayton requires in apartment buildings but not in this type of dwelling.
Photos after the fire show that the two-story red structure into which the eight students had moved that semester was covered in graffiti. “Fast Food Goats,” read one slogan. It was, in the words of Paul Morgan, the young man who set the fatal fire, “a party house.”
“It’s dirty and grungy. You’re not at your parents’ house, where it’s all clean and neat,” says Morgan, now 26, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and arson.
In 2000, he was a junior business major from Rochester, N.Y. Recalling his feelings about the house at 414 Stonemill Road, he says, “You’re in a junk house that you don’t really have to take care of.”
Alcohol is key
The most common element in fatal off-campus fires is alcohol.
One-quarter of these fires followed a party, and in 59% of them, at least one of the dead students had been drinking, the USA TODAY analysis found. In 21 cases in which an autopsy report showed the deceased’s blood alcohol content, the median level was .12%, and the highest was .304%. A person with an alcohol reading of .08% is considered by the nation’s traffic laws to be too drunk to drive. Cohen had a blood alcohol content of .23%.
The party started on a Saturday night, the weekend before final exams, and the housemates had been celebrating the approaching end of the fall semester. In the wee hours of the morning, three male and two female students were hanging out at the house until they could go to a local bar that reopened at 5:30 a.m., they told investigators.
To pass the time, they had a food fight. A bottle of olives was the first to be hurled at the front door. Then a bottle of salsa exploded. Then glass containers of colorful condiments, including mayonnaise and ketchup, burst against the wood, splattering food and glass and getting laughs.
“Boys — just boys being boys,” one girl wrote in a statement submitted to police. “At the time it was kind of funny to everyone.”
Cohen had gone to bed. Experts say that alcohol can deaden sleeping students to the sounds and smells of danger.
“Even if you wake up in time, you may not make a rational decision. You may go down a hall toward a fire instead of away. You may not remember where emergency exits are,” says Steven Avato, a special agent and certified fire investigator for U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“It makes your decision-making process much harder, if you are able to respond at all.”
Deliberately set fires were a common thread in the incidents studied by USA TODAY. They played a role in one-fifth of all fires studied and one-fourth of the 54 off-campus deaths. Among them:
*In September 2000, University of Pittsburgh senior Joseph Marcinek died in an apartment building after another student set his ex-girlfriend’s apartment on fire because she had severed their relationship, prosecutors said. Two years later, Matthew Kaguyutan was sentenced to life in prison without parole for setting the blaze.
*In February 2002, University of North Carolina-Greensboro students Elizabeth Harris and Rachel Llewellyn and two others, Rachel’s sister Donna and Donna’s boyfriend, Ryan Bek, died after a recent graduate set fire to a box outside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment building. Prosecutors said Janet Danahey, then 23, was angry that her boyfriend had ended the relationship. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
*In April 2005, University of Maryland student Michael Scrocca died after he couldn’t escape a fire that began on the porch of his College Park house after a party. Student Daniel Murray was arrested on arson and murder charges. He faces trial in November.
‘What is your deal with fire?’
In Dayton, Morgan had a history of playing with fire. He had set fire to paper and paper plates inside the house, and a textbook and trash container outside, his housemate Mark Muoio, then 21, told fire investigators.
“What is your deal with fire, dude?” Morgan’s buddies once asked him, according to the Dayton police report. Morgan had lit so many fires that his housemates had “quit really paying attention to Paul lighting the fires,” another housemate, Brian Hutchinson, then 20, told investigators.
This time, Morgan was trying to impress the girls. He unrolled paper towels on the stairs and lighted them, the girls told police in written statements. The towels burned quickly and went out.
One of the girls told fire investigators that burning pieces of paper towel floated up, riding on hot air produced by the flames. Investigators suspect that the burning paper landed near bags of trash and clothing in a hallway lined with old, flammable paneling.
Morgan then set fire to a roll of paper towels on the living room floor, the girls told police. Hutchinson used a fire extinguisher to put that fire out. The extinguisher’s dry chemicals made it hard for the partiers to breathe, so they went outside for air. They caught their breath and returned to make sure the roll was not still burning.
About five minutes later, as they stood again in front of the house, one of the girls asked the boys whether their house had a chimney. The students all looked up to see smoke pouring from the top of the house.
They all ran to the back of the house, and Morgan and Muoio sped up an outdoor staircase. When they opened the door at the top of the stairs, the clothes-strewn hallway was ablaze. Investigators say that more air rushed in from the open door to fuel the blaze.
Hutchinson, who told detectives that he “heard AJ yelling and screaming” from his bedroom, ran to call 911. Muoio and Morgan then ran back to the front of the house and climbed onto a roof above the kitchen. “We were pounding on AJ’s window,” Morgan recalls now. “Then the fire department was there, and they yelled at us and told us to get off the roof.”
The smoke alarm system, a key safety tool that would have warned Cohen with horns and strobe lights, was silent. Morgan had gone down to the basement to disable the system a few weeks earlier after pizza had burned in the oven.
In at least 28% of the fatal fires USA TODAY studied, smoke detectors were either missing or disconnected. Investigators suspect that number is higher, but because infernos destroy the devices, whether the smoke detector sounded could not be determined in more than half of the fires that killed college students.
Similar alarm systems in campus dormitories would have automatically summoned help. And even if shut off, they would have sent a “trouble” signal that would have summoned police or firefighters.
According to court documents, the alarm was not monitored after the University of Dayton bought the Stonemill Road house in 1989.
“If you install a system like they did there, it should be a supervised system,” Comeau says. “If you have a system that has been disabled for weeks, then it is not worth the wiring that is in there.”
Within hours, Morgan told investigators what he had done. Because he wasn’t driving, his blood alcohol wasn’t tested, but he admitted being very drunk. He pleaded guilty to arson and involuntary manslaughter.
“Paul Morgan admitted what he did, admitted he had a problem,” Donna Cohen says. “As a mom, it could have been any of us who had a kid who got so wrapped up in alcohol when it’s flowing that freely.”
Morgan, who apologized to his friend’s parents at the sentencing hearing, served a six-month sentence at a community correctional facility. Looking back at that night, he blames alcohol.
“I don’t want to make light of what happened, but I don’t think it was the fire,” he says. “It was more the alcohol and the dangers of drinking into a stupor the way most college kids tend to do. Yes, the fire caused it, but it is the stupidity behind it that really set it off.”
Cohen’s father, Kim Cohen, a retired Cincinnati police officer, blames the University of Dayton in a lawsuit. The wrongful-death suit seeks unspecified damages, but the parents say what they want most is safer student housing.
The university denies responsibility for Cohen’s death and says it has tried to improve fire safety. More of the smoke alarms — but not all — in off-campus student houses are now monitored at a central location. The house that burned was demolished and replaced with new student housing that has such a centrally monitored system and fire sprinklers.
“We can take all of the precautions possible, and yet it’s like all kinds of security and safety issues: It comes down to people have to take a certain responsibility for their own security and safety,” says Bill Schuerman, the university’s vice president for student development and dean of students.
“We try to get students to realize that from the time they set foot on this campus, their life is pretty much going to be dictated by the decisions that they make.”
Scott Markland, the university’s assistant dean of students, usesCohen’s death to remind students of the danger of drunkenness. And he believes the efforts by the university to crack down on alcohol abuse have made the neighborhood safer, although a fatal fire is a constant worry.
“I think it is much less likely to happen today,” Markland says. “Our binge-drinking rates have been down for two years running. Thursday night drinking is down, and our faculty have done a great job doing their part holding students accountable and increasing academic rigor.”
Says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education: “Some of these tragedies would possibly be averted by greater enforcement, and some of them are just beyond the capacity of the local fire marshal to control. When (a student) is blitzed, it is hard to exercise sound judgment.”
The Cohens say the school should have protected their son.
“We passed the baton to the University of Dayton. They dropped it, and now we have to carry that loss,” Kim Cohen says. “There comes an assumption of safety. Their inaction cost my son’s life.”
Donna Cohen suggests that parents sizing up prospective colleges with their children go out on Friday and Saturday nights to judge safety.
“In retrospect, you wish you could turn back the hands of time,” Kim Cohen says. His wife finishes the wish: “To rip him out of there.”