Safety_Wall1.jpgKENT KRIEGSHAUSER/The Register-Mail

Galesburg Street Division workers construct a safety wall along East Main Street Friday afternoon. The wall will extend to the curb and will keep pedestrians from the fire site while demolition and cleanup continue. Working on the wall are, Steve Erickson, on ladder, Marc McMahon, assisting him and Pat Crain handling a section of lumber.

Party preceded O.T.'s fire

Police say building had space heaters

Saturday, February 4, 2006

GALESBURG - From eight to 12 people attended an after- hours party on the second floor of the O.T. Johnson building less than 24 hours before it burned, according to police reports first released Friday evening.

Information in Galesburg Police Department supplemental reports written Wednesday and made available Friday evening indicated that Michael Nelson, son of the O.T. Johnson building owners, Dr. Richard and Sally Nelson of Clinton, Iowa, was in the building Jan. 21 along with three co-workers to assess damage from an earlier fire at the former Gross Galesburg building on Ferris Street.

Michael Nelson and his work crew walked through both buildings on Saturday, but no work was done. He told police he and his crew tried to watch football on a TV on the second floor, but the reception was poor, so they went to Billiards on Main. Eventually a number of people who had been at the Seminary Street Pub were invited to a party on the second floor of O.T. Johnson's, attended by eight to 12 people and apparently lasting from 2:30-3 a.m. until 4-5 a.m. Jan. 22. Although the people at the party said there was drinking and smoking, Fire Chief John Cratty said the time frame - almost 24 hours before the fire - pretty much rules out smoking as a cause of the fire because cigarettes smolder for only three to six hours.

Investigators are interested in another discovery learned after talking to people attending the party. There may have been four to seven space heaters in the former O.T. Johnson building, 125 E. Main St., Cratty said Friday evening, "We don't know at this point whether they were on or not. It is something we are looking at as a potential cause of the fire. We're not ruling it out."

Cratty also said arson is still a possible cause.

The fire, reported at about 1:30 a.m. Jan. 23, destroyed the O.T. Johnson building and the adjacent Gross Galesburg building.

"We're not going to rule out an intentionally set fire," Cratty said. "We don't have information that would lead us to believe at this point there was any individual or individuals who set the fire, but we definitely aren't ruling it out."

Cratty said determining a cause is going to be difficult, but "I think it's safe to say ... we're in the process of getting close to narrowing it down to some probable causes."

While it appears progress is being made in the effort to find the cause of the fire, the mystery of where Michael D. Olson, 23, is appears to be no closer to being solved. No witnesses said they saw Olson at the after hours party. Police have brought in search-and-rescue dogs twice in a so-far unsuccessful effort to find any trace of the Galesburg man.

Olson was at Billiards on Main, drinking and playing pool with his brother, Matt, late Jan. 22 and into the early-morning hours of Jan. 23. Michael Olson was last seen about 30 minutes before the fire was reported when he attempted to use the restroom at Papa John's at about 1 a.m. He was told he could not and was last seen walking down Main Street.

An intriguing point, although police have not linked it to Olson's disappearance, is the first firefighters on the scene found the glass broken on the front door of the O.T. Johnson building. Cratty said the door looked as though "somebody had broken it rather than being caused from the fire."

Michael Nelson, the son of the owners of the buildings, does contracting work and was looking at the Gross Galesburg building to see what repairs were needed to reopen East Main Antiques in April. The antique store in the former O.T. Johnson building had been closed for two years. Electricity there was turned on Jan. 17.

Michael Nelson told investigators they plugged in one space heater and it tripped a circuit breaker. He said they unplugged it and reset the circuit breaker.

The number of space heaters and what floor they were on varies from witness to witness, but at least one woman at an early morning party Jan. 22 on the building's second floor said she saw space heaters on the second floor.

Cratty said that until Thursday, "You could actually see a space heater sitting on an I-beam. It was just weird. There was an I-beam turned sideways and it (the space heater) was melted because of the heat of the fire, but you could see what it was."

Police reports said that Dr. Nelson estimated the value of the antiques in East Main Antiques between $400,000 and $1 million, including antiques, clothes, books and furniture. There was no insurance.

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