Eli Hilderbrand named as victim of AC fire

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By Shane Farley
October 2, 2007 - 2:36:30 pm
The house, which was converted to a four-unit apartment, at 109 N. Fourth Street in Ark City.
Shane Farley/NewsCow photo

Patty Ruggenberg knew the Cowley College student that lived in the aging two-story apartment house across the street from her home on Fourth Street in Arkansas City. His name was Eli, she said.

It shook her up to see his remains taken from the charred home Tuesday morning.

"My nerves are just shot, I'm still very upset about all of it," Ruggenberg said as she sat on the porch of the home she's lived in for more than 10 years. "A good looking kid to die like that. He talked to me a lot, always asked me if there was anything he could do to help me."

Fire officials have yet to identify the person killed in the early morning fire at 109 N. Fourth. However, sources have confirmed the student was Eli Hilderbrand, who also worked at Cowley College's wellness center.

Officials at the college would not confirm Hilderbrand's identity but did say the incident "is a terrible tragedy."

Gina McKown, director for the wellness center, told school officials that employees at the center were not up to doing interviews on what quickly became a sad day on campus.

"We look for a certain kind of kid to work at the wellness center," McKown said, in a statement issued through the college's public relations department. "And he was just an awesome kid."

There are some indications that the victim attempted to fight the fire, according to Lt. John Scott of the Ark City Fire Department. The water was running in his apartment and he was near an exit that would have allowed him to escape.

"The body was found downstairs near the front door," Scott said. "He lived downstairs."

Though the structure has been described as an apartment, it was actually a house divided into four living areas and used as an apartment, he said. Emergency response crews arrived at the home just after 3 a.m. to find the front of the apartment aflame. Investigators from the fire department and the Kansas State Fire Marshal's office are still trying to determine the cause of the blaze.

Ruggenberg, the neighbor, saw flames through the window of her dining room early this morning and went outside to see what was happening. Health problems and issues with her blood sugar level sometimes keep Ruggenberg up late.

She emerged from her home to find three men near her vehicle, one said to the other "you killed my brother," Ruggenberg said. It appeared at least two of the men were fighting. Police arrived shortly thereafter and placed at least one of the men in handcuffs, she said.

Ruggenberg reported hearing a small explosion coming from the direction of the burning home. She saw some of the male students who lived there painting in recent weeks and wondered if there might have been flammable chemicals on the porch.

She doesn't know if any of those factors played a role in the fire, she just finds herself thinking back, trying to figure out what might have gone wrong. There appeared to be a party going on at the apartment, which is about 100 yards or so from Cowley College's main campus, Ruggenberg said.

Although the students appeared to be drinking, there was not much noise or commotion until the fire began, she said.

"Actually all of them seemed to be pretty good kids to me," she said.

(Editor's note: Refreshing the page will give you a second photo from the fire scene. You may have to hit refresh more than once.)

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