OTTUMWA — A better picture of what happened during a fatal house fire is beginning to form, though there are few clear answers yet.

An early morning fire Sunday resulted in the deaths of two Ottumwans at 11612 140th St., in rural Ottumwa.

“There was a birthday party there on Saturday night,” said Wapello County Sheriff Don Kirkendall, who has been conducting interviews with partygoers. “Some of them were playing cards, watching sports, standing around talking; whatever young people do.”

Kirkendall agreed there was some alcohol at the party, but stressed that may or may not have been a contributing factor.

“You can be having the best time in the world and a tragedy can happen, and it may not even be anybody’s fault,” said the sheriff.

The party started winding down between 2 and 3 a.m.. Most of the celebrants went home. Nathan Messer, Seth Anderson, D.J. Huffman and Zach Richards stayed.

From what he’s gathered, Kirkendall said Huffman and Richards were asleep on the first floor. Messer and Anderson appear to have been upstairs.

“Then the fire started,” said Kirkendall, who said a cause has not been determined. “One of them [thinks] the smoke woke him; he saw an orange glow on the west wall and started yelling ‘Fire!’”

Kirkendall said it appears those shouts of alarm were what woke the other first floor occupant.

“The two had to crawl out,” then used a cell phone to call 9-1-1 around 6:30 a.m.

There is no answer to what was happening upstairs with Messer and Anderson.

“We don’t know if they ever woke up,” Kirkendall said.

The state medical examiner said earlier this week the two died from the smoke.

The investigation continues, but with not even a standing wall, determining a cause may be difficult or impossible, Kirkendall said.

The importance in the investigation lies in providing answers to the family, and as a potential preventative measure for the community.

“If you determine the cause of [a] fire, people might read that... and think, ‘I’ve got [a] candle like that near my curtains, or a box sitting next to the baseboard heat; I better move it,’” he said.

Though the scene of the fire has been slow to give up clues, interviews have been helpful in understanding a timeline.

“We’re trying to get any little piece that could lead us to the cause of the fire. Did you see any candles? Was there anything next to the baseboard heat? Was anybody smoking? ... a lit cigarette can take half-an-hour to an hour-and-a-half to [cause a fire].”

The interviews with the boys and other witnesses haven’t been easy.

“They’re pretty devastated,” Kirkendall said.

Mark Newman can be reached at 683-5358 or by e-mail at


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