Fire probe ends with no finding

AMHERST — The cause of a fire that claimed the life of a University of Massachusetts student at Rolling Green Apartments a year ago has been officially declared unknown.

State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan and Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said in a statement Friday that, after a 14-month investigation, the cause of the fire that killed James “Jake” Hoffman and heavily damaged 10 units, is “undetermined.”

“It’s just sad,” Nelson said in a telephone interview. “A mother and father have lost their son. Sometimes finding a cause helps with the grieving process. A lot of things were eliminated, but there are times like this where you just can’t say definitively what the cause is.”

According to information from the state fire marshal’s office, Hoffman, 21, was initially rescued by his roommate, but then re-entered the burning apartment. A UMass senior from Stoughton, Hoffman died in the early morning fire Jan. 21, 2013, which gutted five apartments and damaged another five in the complex at 422 Belchertown Road. All units have since been rebuilt.

The fire began in front of the closet in Hoffman’s second-floor bedroom and burned completely through the floor at that spot.

But because the heat source for the fire was not identified, investigators had to rule its cause undetermined based on the National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. This guide requires identifying a fire’s point of origin and using deductive reasoning and a systematic evaluation of probable ignition scenarios.

In addition, if investigators can identify more than one probable scenario, the fire must be ruled “undetermined after investigation.”

“You can’t just pick one if it’s not definitive,” Nelson said.

Electrical experts ruled out the apartment’s electrical system as a cause of the fire.

The statement notes that investigators had hoped that forensic analysis of Hoffman’s electronic equipment, found outside the burning apartment, might provide evidence that could yield a definitive cause, but this did not happen.

“The fact that we will never know the cause won’t change anything for Jake’s parents,” Nelson said. It also will not affect insurance claims, he said. “In the end it’s just sad.”

The fire was investigated by the Amherst Fire Department, Amherst Police Department and state police assigned to Coan’s office and to the office of Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. An electrical expert, code compliance officers in the Department of Fire Services and State Police Crime Scene Services assisted, and forensic analysis was conducted by the New England State Police Information Network.

Staff Writer Debra Scherban contributed to this report.

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