College Park Fire Ruled Arson

Mary Kaessinger Scrocca places her hand on the back of son Brian at College Park services for another son, Michael A. Scrocca, a University of Maryland senior who died in an off-campus house fire.
Mary Kaessinger Scrocca places her hand on the back of son Brian at College Park services for another son, Michael A. Scrocca, a University of Maryland senior who died in an off-campus house fire. "He lived his life well and fully," university President C.D. Mote Jr. said. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

Fire investigators yesterday ruled the fire that killed a University of Maryland senior an arson, drawing their conclusion largely from the presence of a gasoline can on the front porch of the off-campus house near where the blaze began.

"There was no explanation or accountability for the gas can found in the area of the origin of the fire," Prince George's County fire department spokesman Mark E. Brady said. "It is now a criminal investigation."

Brady said the determination of arson was bolstered by interviews conducted with the College Park house's occupants and those who attended a party there the night before the Saturday fire, as well as a review of written statements.

An accelerant-sniffing dog found that the gasoline can contained an "ignitable liquid," Brady said. The dog also found several "hits," or patches of the ignitable liquid, across the front porch, he added.

There are no suspects, said Brady, adding that he was not aware of any threats to the residents of the house.

The fast-moving, early-morning blaze April 30 took the life of Michael A. Scrocca, 22, a finance major from Somerville, N.J. His housemate Stephen Aarons, 21, suffered burns, fracture and smoke inhalation after jumping from a second-floor window.

Yesterday afternoon, about 300 students and friends gathered at a memorial service for Scrocca at the campus chapel. They walked past a collage of photos: pictures of Scrocca as a child, as a high school baseball player, from his graduation. Photos showed him enjoying life -- at fraternity parties, on the beach -- all punctuated by his wide smile.

Some of his friends wore T-shirts emblazoned with a photo of him in Rome. Others clutched white pieces of paper that read "A Note for Mike" so they could jot down their memories of him for his parents.

There were tears and laughter, hugs and kisses.

"He lived his life well and fully, and that is the most any one of us can do," university President C.D. Mote Jr. said. "So many people have lost a part of themselves in his passing."

The fire began at 4:15 a.m. on the front porch of the 80-year-old house in the 7500 block of Princeton Avenue, near Fraternity Row. Fire investigators have said that the blaze burned for several minutes before anyone called 911 and that at least one resident tried to douse the fire with cups of water before notifying authorities.

Seven male students, from various fraternities, lived in the 2 1/2 -story house, though county zoning codes allow only five residents. The night before the fire, they hosted a party, which included kegs and malt liquor, that lasted until early morning, College Park officials said.

The fire has prompted school, city and county officials to search for ways to improve fire safety, such as the installation of automatic sprinklers in all homes and buildings. In Prince George's, sprinklers are mandatory only in homes built since the early 1990s.

On Monday, fire, police and local and university officials met to discuss ways to prevent such fatal fires, said George Cathcart, the University of Maryland's director of communications. The university, he said, was committed to helping College Park install sprinklers and implement other fire safety measures in rental apartments near campus.

At the chapel, Scrocca's friends brought up memory after memory.

There was the recollection of Scrocca standing at the driveway of his friend's house, imploring him to come on a road trip. There was the memory of how he "transformed into a volleyball beast" to defeat more talented players.

Scrocca was remembered as spontaneous, athletic, generous. He was someone, a friend said, "who loved everyone else's girlfriend," which evoked laughter from those gathered in the chapel. His untimely death was also remembered as a warning.

"The sadness of young death reminds us that we have to live our lives fully today because that's all we have," university chaplain Bill Byrne told the gathering.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company