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Report: Two people missing in Middletown warehouse fire are safe

Local man admits he set fire to keep warm
Posted at 11:07 AM, Jan 02, 2020

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — Two people feared to have died in the fire that destroyed the abandoned Middletown Paperboard facility are accounted for after they reached out to Middletown police Thursday night, the Journal-News reported.

Authorities were worried about the pair's fate after a Middletown man who admitted setting Wednesday's fire told police he did not see them escape, police said.

Crews continued to battle hotspots Friday morning as they demolished part of a "safety hazard area." Verity Parkway and Route 4 will be closed until the end of the week.

Joshua Lamb, 35, is charged with arson in connection with the massive fire.

Middletown Police Chief David Birk said Lamb, who was experiencing homelessness, admitted building a fire inside the warehouse. Lamb left to get more firewood and upon returning found his bedding on fire. As the fire spread, Birk said Lamb fled the scene because he has several warrants for his arrest.

Lamb told investigators he was in the building with four other people, and he knew two were able to get out when he fled, Birk said.

“He was unaware with the smoke and everything if the other two were able to get out at that point," Birk said.

After an initial search, Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli said there was "no indication" anyone was trapped inside the building during the blaze, but he added that authorities were looking for two people who went missing at the time of the fire: 40-year-old J.D. Robinson, also known as Justin De Vercelli, and Tiffany Orano. Officials did not release any additional information on either person.

Lolli said what's left of the warehouse was still too hot for cadaver dogs’ feet to use them to search the site.

Asked about the problem of homelessness in Middletown, Birk said, "We are working with different community organizations to find solutions to it."

A judge set Lamb's bond at $20,000 on Thursday. Lamb was booked into the Middletown City Jail at 8 p.m. Wednesday. His preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 8.

Acting Middletown City Manager Susan Cohen said fire and city officials are worried about walls collapsing and floors caving in and would work up a plan to remove the smoldering debris.

"We are cognizant to the fact that we need to get this taken care of as soon as possible, but I don't have any estimates because there are so many unknown factors at this time," Cohen said.

Cohen said a Boston company used to own the warehouse but abandoned it, and the State of Ohio is in the process of taking ownership.

"The state can have some obligation there," Cohen said. "The Butler County Land Bank can also help secure that property for the city if we decide to move that way."

Lolli said there have been three fires at the site since 2014.

Middletown fire crews were continuing to pour water on the building at 300 S. Verity Parkway Thursday morning and into Friday.

Lolli said fire crews faced challenges trying to battle the blaze at the center of the structure, including nearby power lines that blocked aerial ladders. Temperatures inside the building reached 1,800 degrees, hot enough to melt steel beams inside the structure, Lolli said.

The Journal-News is a news partner of WCPO.