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Indiana officials investigate blaze that killed four in crowded house

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- A fire killed four people early yesterday in a two-story house where about a dozen people lived in makeshift rooms, some of them bedding down in closets, the state fire marshal said.

The cause of the fire had not been determined, officials said.

Authorities did not expect to find more bodies, Fire Marshal Roger Johnson said.

Witnesses reported that several people fled the house ``in rapid fashion" before police and fire officials arrived and had not returned, he said.

``We don't know why they left, why they did not want to stay, and why they did not want to address any questions we may have," Johnson said.

Immigration officials had been to the scene, Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Greis said.

There was no indication of foul play but it had not been ruled out. A task force formed to investigate the fire included agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Johnson said.

City Fire Chief Ralph Martin said that when fire crews arrived, the rear of the house already was fully in flames and within minutes the fire had spread through the entire house.

Martin said the fire appeared to have traveled through the walls or ceilings. It took three hours for crews to extinguish the blaze.

Johnson said that he did not know how many people were there when the fire started, but that there were ``an abnormal number of sleeping areas in the house." Mattresses were found inside closets and there appeared to be some makeshift rooms with spots for about 12 to 15 people to sleep, he said.

Officials did not know the victims' identities or ages. There was no immediate response to calls seeking comment from the LaPorte County coroner's office.

Neighbor Holly Hanrath said the house had been up for sale and she and her husband, Frank, had been inside about two weeks ago.

She said it had been subdivided into rooms with plywood sheeting, and there were mattresses on the kitchen floor. The couple said the wiring and plumbing were old and they could smell gas near the stove.

The Hanraths live across the street. ``I could feel the heat coming in through my window. It was really intense," Frank Hanrath said.

Neighbor Tawny Anderson rushed out of her house with her three children when the fire broke out.

She said firefighters hosed down her house and the one next to it to prevent the flames from spreading.

Anderson said she moved into the neighborhood only six weeks ago and did not know the people in the burned house. ``They were quiet. They kept to themselves," she said.

Michigan City is in northwestern Indiana, about 35 miles east of Chicago.

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