Evansville woman arrested for major apartment fire

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - The woman who authorities believe intentionally set a fire that destroyed an entire building at an Evansville apartment complex reportedly said voices inside her head told her to start the blaze.

According to an Evansville Police Department probable cause affidavit, 47-year-old Michelle Hershberger made that statement to a supervisor at ResCare, a company that provides care for people with special needs. Hershberger is preliminarily charged with arson, a class B felony, and is being held without bond. She was booked into the Vanderburgh County Jail at 4:43 a.m. Thursday, according to jail records.

According to that charging document, Hershberger is one of three ResCare residents that live in the unit where authorities say Wednesday night’s blaze started. Police believe Hershberger started the fire that affected a total of nine units by using a lighter to set fire to curtains in her bedroom.

A ResCare worker who was inside the apartment at the time the fire broke out reportedly told investigators that Hershberger is a smoker, and though she is not allowed to keep cigarettes in her room, the employee confirmed Hershberger is permitted to have a lighter with her. According to the affidavit, there is a ResCare caregiver with Hershberger and the other two people who share the apartment with her at all times.

After the fire, Hershberger was taken to Deaconess Gateway Hospital by another ResCare employee for possible smoke inhalation. It was during that trip that she said voices told her to set the fire, according to the affidavit. At the hospital, she reportedly told a nurse and an additional ResCare employee that she was trying to kill herself and another person she shares the apartment with.

According to investigators, Hershberger met with a crisis intervention team, but she was not admitted for physiological treatment.

EARLIER

A rapidly spreading fire destroyed a nine-unit apartment building Wednesday evening at the Sugar Mill Creek Apartment complex on North Green River Road.

Eight of the nine units in the building, consisting of one town house unit and eight apartment flats, were occupied, but all residents were reported to have evacuated safely. Two pets, though, a cat and a dog, were reported to have died in the blaze.

The Evansville Courier & Press reports the number of people displaced by the fire at the unit was not immediately available, although all were being serviced by the Red Cross which was on scene.

The complex of more than 20 buildings is managed by Interprop Communities. Cecil Neville, an Interprop manager on the scene Wednesday night, said the fire was reported to have started shortly before 9 p.m. in the wall of a first-floor bedroom.

The occupant of the unit, he said, saw the fire climb up the wall, out a window and into the attic of the building.

Fire Chief Mike Connelly, one of more than 40 Evansville firefighters responding to the blaze, said the fire spread rapidly throughout the structure once it reached the attic because it lacked firestops there between units.

Firefighters were also hampered initially by a lack of water as they worked to identify the correct water mains in the complex. The water problem, though, was quickly resolved as aerial trucks poured water onto the two-story structure.

Firefighters reported flames had been knocked down shortly before 10 p.m. although they continued to report hot spots an hour later.

The center portion of the building had collapsed, although other walls remained standing.

No other residents of the complex were reported to have been ordered to evacuate, and many wandered through the complex and stood in tight knots talking and photographing the flames.

Jennifer Delaney, who lived in a nearby apartment building, was carrying her two cats in a tote, uncertain of where she would spend the remainder of the night.

“I won’t be sleeping tonight if that’s still going on," she said.

Delaney said her apartment had not had any damage although heat from the nearby fire quickly drove up the temperature in it.

“It’s been a bad day for the Tri-State today,” said Jeff Hankins, another Sugar Creek resident, referring to a wreck which claimed the lives of two city residents earlier Wednesday afternoon and then the fire.

-- Staff Writers Shannon Hall and Susan Orr contributed to this report.

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