Amherst Fatal Fire Undetermined After Extensive Investigation
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan and Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson announced that after an extensive investigation into the cause of the 2013 fatal fire that claimed the life of a student living in off-campus housing, the cause will remain officially undetermined. The fire occurred in a townhouse apartment at 422 Belchertown Road at 4:40 a.m. on January 21. 2013. The victim, James Hoffman, age 21, was initially rescued by his roommate, but he re-entered the burning apartment.
Investigators determined that the fire started directly in front of the closet in the victim’s second floor bedroom. The fire burned completely through the floor in this spot and investigators were not able to identify any known heat source at this point of origin. Electrical experts were able to rule out the apartment’s electrical system as a possible cause.
Fire investigators employ the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921- Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations which requires identification of a fire’s point of origin and then uses deductive reasoning and a systematic evaluation of probable ignition scenarios. If no competent heat source can be identified at the point of origin, or if more than one probable scenario is identified, then the fire must be ruled ‘undetermined after investigation’.
The fire was jointly investigated by the Amherst Fire Department, Amherst Police Department, and State Police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal and to the Office of Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. Assistance was received from an electrical expert, code compliance officers in the Department of Fire Services, State Police Crime Scene Services and forensic analysis was conducted by the New England State Police Information Network (NESPIN). Investigators had hoped that the forensic analysis of the victim’s personal electronic equipment, found outside the burning apartment, might yield additional evidence that would lead to a definitive cause determination, but it did not.