‘Suspicious’ fire leaves freshman in critical condition

Abbey Brown

Rachael Davenport was surprised she never heard screams.

The Reading, Pa., freshman watched firefighters perform CPR on Pellville freshman Katie Autry, who was carried from Poland Hall after a “suspicious fire” began in her room a little after 4 a.m. Sunday.

Davenport said Autry was carried out by two firefighters, one holding her arms and another her legs. She said she looked like a “lifeless doll.”

“(The firefighters) dropped her in the grass and said, ‘We need a medic,'” Davenport said. “Everyone backed off when they said that. A fireman ripped off his mask and put it on her.”

Autry was flown to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville yesterday morning after she suffered third degree burns and “superficial puncture wounds,” said Bob Skipper, director of university relations.

“An officer (at the fire) said, ‘If you believe in prayer, start praying,” said Nina Maness, a freshman from Gallatin, Tenn.

He said the cause of her wounds is unknown, but they weren’t considered life threatening.

“The burns are the more critical things,” Skipper said. “The other wounds could be lacerations (cuts) or stab wounds.”

He said the resident assistants followed procedure and went to each of the rooms after the fire alarm sounded to make sure everyone was awake and evacuated. There was too much smoke to open Autry’s second floor room.

The door to her room was locked, Skipper said.

Poland Hall Director Lana Riney said there is no way to lock the door from the outside of the room without a key.

Before the blaze

Amy Nussmeier, a freshman from Evansville, Ind., said she was with Autry and her roommate, Elizabethtown freshman Danica Jackson, earlier in the evening. She said Autry asked her and a friend visiting from out of town to go to a party at the Pi Kappa Alpha house.

Nussmeier said she told Autry and Jackson to “check out the party” and let them know how it was going, and then they would go. Instead, the two hung out with Nussmeier and her friend in Nussmeier’s room from 10 p.m. until midnight Saturday, she said.

At midnight, Nussmeier said she and a friend who was visiting from Evansville, Ind., Kristen Reynolds, dropped Autry and Jackson off at the Pike house.

“Katie called around 12:30 and said ‘Come over here. I know it’s busted, but come over here,'” Reynolds said. “She was really drunk.”

She said Autry had been drinking Everclear, which is 95 percent alcohol.

Owensboro senior Justin Perkins, Pike chapter president, confirmed that there was a party at the house Saturday night and that there were 50 to 100 people present.

“It was a pretty low key party,” he said. “It wasn’t wild or anything.”

He said the fraternity was told to shut the party down around 1 a.m. and that several members were available to drive people home.

Alcohol was not served in the house, Perkins said.

“Police are involved, and we’re cooperating 100 percent,” he said.

He didn’t know if Autry was at the party.

Charley Pride, director of Student Activities and Organizations, said that the investigation is in the police’s hands and there will be no sanctions against the fraternity until the investigation is complete.

“They only have finals left anyway, so there are no events to suspend them from if that was the decision we came to,” he said.

The past

This isn’t the first time Jim Inman, Autry’s foster father, has been down this road.

On Feb. 8, 2002, his daughter-in-law, Jamie Inman, 24, and her daughter, 3-year-old Hannah Hutchinson, were killed in a fire in Pellville. His son, Scott, suffered minor injuries.

He said he saw his daughter, Autry, at the hospital yesterday.

Nussmeier said her friend wasn’t moving when firefighters brought her out and that her face and the area from her waist down were black. Her hair was also singed, she said.

Poland residents were left in the dark about what had happened to Autry, most finding out from watching the news or talking to reporters on the scene.

They were milling about the outside of the dorm at 9 a.m. yesterday in pajamas, slippers and bathrobes. They were allowed inside for about five minutes around 11 a.m. to get the necessities – a change of clothes, toiletries, money and books to study for their finals.

Brian Kuster, director of Housing and Residence Life, told the students the university was treating them to lunch at Topper Cafe and that Downing University Center would be opened for students to study in.

Robert Mountain, a freshman from Olean, N.Y., said the students made it outside at exactly 4 a.m. Sunday after the alarm.

“It was mighty chilly and misty,” he said. “I thought someone pulled a prank until I walked down outside and saw fire and smoke coming out the second floor. Then I saw firemen carry her out.”

All of the students, even those on the second floor, were allowed back in by 9:30 p.m. yesterday.

The aftermath

Nussmeier said Jackson told her the fire in the room was contained to Autry’s side of the room, mostly just her bed. She also said Jackson told her there was a blanket hanging from the room’s sprinkler head and all the blankets in the room, which were burned, had been placed on Autry’s bed.

Skipper said the cause of the fire and injuries were still under investigation. The investigation is being handled by Kentucky State Police, the state fire marshal’s office and campus police.

“They’ve been talking to several people and are conducting interviews,” he said.

Three men were seen taken away from the scene in police cars, but they weren’t in handcuffs. Skipper said they were being interviewed by campus police. They weren’t Poland Hall residents, he said.

He said police have been unable to talk to Autry because she is in a medically induced coma. Given the severity of the wounds, he said he doubts she was able to talk before she got to the hospital.

Andrew Howard, a freshman from Antioch, Tenn., said he’s known Autry since the beginning of the school year.

“She’s a really nice girl,” he said. “She’s laid back.”

Howard said he was in shock after finding out what happened to Autry.

“It was an unexpected blow,” he said. “That wasn’t what I expected to see when I came home to go to sleep. We only have a week left. If this happened midway through the semester, I would be real concerned. If someone can just walk up and get in a room, that is pretty scary.”

Jackson said the police have told her not to comment on what happened that evening because it will affect the investigation.

But she did say that Autry is her best friend and she wants to know what happened to her.

“Who would want to hurt her?” Jackson said. “Anybody who would want to hurt her is pure evil.”

Reach Abbey Brown at [email protected].