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Man dies after shop fire

Thu., Nov. 20, 2008, midnight

Unit packed with boxes, belongings

A man who apparently lived for more than a decade in leased space at Empire Auto Body in northeast Spokane died there Wednesday in a fire caused by a woodstove.

Neighboring business owners told fire officials the man they knew only as John lived in one of eight leased spaces in the building at 3122 E. Gordon Ave.

“He never said anything but ‘hi,’ ” said Jeff Kincaid, owner of Kincaid Automotive, located next door to Empire Auto Body. “He was a real recluse.”

Firefighters responded to the small blaze just before 7 a.m. and searched the structure for possible victims, but found no one. When Kincaid arrived at work, he told firefighters that a man lived in the unit next to the one where crews were working.

The man’s unit was filled with stacks of boxes, hard-bound books, magazines, a few food items and a flashlight, said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams. The man had dug a tunnel to a platform area where he slept; firefighters found him there. The man died shortly after firefighters reached him and tried to resuscitate him.

An autopsy Wednesday did not reveal the man’s cause of death. Flames never reached his leased space, Williams said. The man’s identity and age have not been released.

The building’s owners – Linda, Pat and Janell Kofmehl, according to Spokane County assessor records – did not return a phone call seeking comment. While the man was allowed to store items in the leased space, it was illegal for him to be living there, fire officials said. It was unclear if the owners were aware the man had made the unit his home. Kincaid said he’d see John every day with a bundle of items, usually packed into plastic grocery bags. “He was a real pack rat,” Kincaid said. The man often rode the bus and was seen downtown.

“It’s too bad. He was a nice guy,” Kincaid said.

Firefighters who encountered the scene were surprised anyone could get around in the labyrinth of cardboard. Said battalion Chief Ken Kirsch, “It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.”

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