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Students’ home condemned after alleged Potsdam arson

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POTSDAM — It smelled like a candle burning, and then came the knock on the door of the apartment. A short time later, nine SUNY students were without a place to live.

“This could screw up my whole semester,” said Marc I. Dean, 22, one of the residents of the three-unit apartment house at 28 Pierrepont Ave. that was destroyed by a suspicious fire early Friday. “I lost everything — my books, my computer, everything.”

No one was hurt in the fire, but the building, owned by Frederick D. Robar Sr., was condemned.

Mr. Dean lived upstairs with two other men who are also SUNY Potsdam students.

“We first thought we were smelling smoke from a candle,” he said.

He said he and a visiting friend began searching the apartment about 1 a.m. for the source of the smell and heard a knock at his door.

“It was the neighbors from downstairs. They said we might want to get out of the house, that their roommate lit the house on fire,” said Mr. Dean, who did not know their names.

Potsdam police said Friday night that charges were pending against one woman but that no arrest had been made. She was undergoing psychiatric evaluation at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg. Mr. Robar said police told him the suspect admitted setting the fire and will be arrested next week.

SUNY Canton officials identified two of the nine students who lived in the building as Brandi L. Saumier and Quinn G. Patraw, both of Winthrop.

According to Mr. Robar, they lived in the apartment where the fire originated with another man and a woman who are SUNY Potsdam students. He said a man and a woman who attend SUNY Potsdam lived in the neighboring one-bedroom apartment on the first floor.

Potsdam police and officials at SUNY Potsdam said they would not release the names of the other residents.

Mr. Dean said downstairs neighbors told him that one of their roommates had been “acting weird” during the week and set clothing on fire in her room.

“They said she was upset and said she didn’t think it would hurt anybody,” Mr. Dean said.

Mr. Dean said he woke his sleeping roommate and had him leave the building. Another roommate was out of town.

“I was working on my computer, and like they taught us in those fire drills in school, I unplugged everything, turned out the lights and made my way outside kind of calmly,” he said. “But this was totally surreal.”

Firefighters fought the fire from 1:40 to 4 a.m. Potsdam Fire Chief Timothy L. Jerome said they had trouble putting the fire out right away as village hydrants were being flushed and the water pressure was weak. The structure of the building also created difficulties.

“The construction for that building is what is called a balloon frame. When the fire gets into the walls, it goes straight up through to the attic space and it’s not visible,” Chief Jerome said.

Firefighters were concerned about the possibility the fire could flare up again.

“You have a lot of hot spots you are trying to knock out so it doesn’t restart,” Chief Jerome said. “The tin roof keeps the heat in and the roof is in such bad shape we can’t get anyone up there. We are just pulling it down, piece by piece, as needed. Sometimes things don’t go our way, and that can make things difficult.”

Mr. Robar said the insurance he has wouldn’t cover the extent of the damage and he was uncertain what his next move was going to be.

“I don’t know if I am going to tear it down or rebuild,” Mr. Robar said. “I know one thing: it is a total loss.”

Mr. Dean also was trying to figure out what to do next. After being up all night, he stood outside Friday morning next to a pile of debris looking at the burned-out building, waiting to learn whether any of his possessions were salvageable. “All I have are the clothes on my back,” he said.

SUNY Potsdam spokeswoman Alexandria M. Jacobs said the school has been coordinating aid efforts, providing temporary housing for the students in residence halls. Ms. Jacobs said the college store has offered the victims gift certificates and discounts for items such as clothing and school supplies.

“We are lucky there were no injuries,” Ms. Jacobs said. “There has been an outpouring of help from the community.”

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