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Hartland community grieving six killed in intentional apartment fire, criminal investigation continues

<i>WDJT</i><br/>The Village of Hartland is mourning six people who died Friday morning after an apartment building was intentionally set on fire./
The Village of Hartland is mourning six people who died Friday morning after an apartment building was intentionally set on fire./

By Adam Rife

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    HARTLAND, Wisconsin (WDJT) — The Village of Hartland is mourning six people who died Friday morning after an apartment building was intentionally set on fire.

The Hartland police chief said it’s now a criminal investigation.

The police department is not yet releasing the victims’ names or ages, but mourners who gathered at a loosely organized vigil at Nixon Park Friday evening know who they are, and they’re grieving their loss.

At the vigil, David Grevenkamp told the gathered crowd, “I wish I had words of comfort. I don’t.”

For most of the day Friday and then into the evening, the Hartland community struggled to find answers that would not come.

Angie Taylor said she felt “Anger, sadness, frustration.”

Near the end of a nightmarish day, the mourners prayed silently and aloud, trying to understand not just what happened, but why.

Grevenkamp said, “This was tragic and senseless in a way that is hard to grapple with.”

According to police, the fire started just after 5 a.m. It swept through a four-unit apartment building on Mansfield Court.

The fire and police departments responded quickly to rescue people from the building and from balconies. Eventually 15 fire departments were on scene to fight the fire.

Six people were killed.

Hartland Village President Jeffrey Pfannerstill said, “This is an absolute tragedy. It’s a sad day for Hartland. It’s going to take some time to sift through all of this.”

At first, Jacob LaCrosse did not know there were fatalities in the early morning hours when he saw flames coming out of the top unit.

LaCrosse said, “I just knew that people were injured, and I knew people were taken out on gurneys and stretchers and rushed to the ER.”

In a news briefing Friday morning, police initially reported seven people had died, but the number was revised to six in the afternoon.

Hartland Police Chief Torin Misko said, “Initial reports from first responders — they believed there were seven individuals. So they believed there were seven fatalities. As we continued to investigate, we actually learned there were only six fatalities.”

Chief Misko reported the fire was intentionally set, but throughout the day evaded questions about who was responsible, only saying, “We don’t believe there’s any danger in this area. This remains an active investigation.”

Police did not identify the victims or release their ages Friday, but mourners at the vigil said they grieved children and families.

Grevenkamp is a science teacher at North Shore Middle School. He said, “One of the students affected is a student in our school, and she would be a future student of mine.”

LaCrosse was supposed to move into one of the lower units this month and had already paid a security deposit and the first month’s rent. He said a couple showed him the downstairs unit and he knew them well. He said they had three toddlers.

After learning the fire was intentionally set, LaCrosse said, “Who would do that? That’s my honest opinion. If you knew families were in there, who would do that?”

The Hartland Police Department was assisted by the State Fire Marshal through the Division of Criminal Investigations, as well as the Wisconsin Crime Lab and the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.

Of the criminal investigation, Pfannerstill said: “It saddens me, it scares me, but I think it wakes us up to the fact that it doesn’t have to be a big city.”

Pfannerstill also spoke of the pained looks on the faces of the fire and police crews that worked the crime scene.

First responder Angie has been on that side of things. She said, “Mentally it’s always in your mind. It’s always going to be there. It doesn’t ever go away.”

Pfannerstill said there was an outpouring of support Friday, with many people calling the village to offer their help. He said, “There is a community that is hurting. There’s a neighborhood behind me that’s hurting.”

In the meantime, some mourners were trying to be ok with not being ok for now.

Grevenkamp said, “I don’t know that there is a message that’s really comforting at this point and time. It’s a process, and we need to be patient with each other. We need to give each other grace to grieve the way we need to grieve.”

Grevenkamp said counselors will be available for Hartland students on Monday.

Pfannerstill said if anyone is struggling to cope with the tragedy, they can call the fire department, police department, or the village. He said they will do everything in their power to get people the help they need.

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