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HOBART — When local police Officer Adam Ahmad found that he was the first to arrive at the scene of a downtown blaze Tuesday night, he entered the burning building to begin evacuating the apartment dwellers on the second floor.

"When he got to the top of the stairs, it was just a wall of heat and smoke," Police Chief Rick Zormier said Wednesday morning.

"He could hear them (residents) calling out," Zormier said.

Ahmad used his flashlight to guide the residents through the heavy smoke and out to safety, the chief said.

Everyone was evacuated from the building at 538 E. Third St., but 26-year-old Ahmad, a five-year veteran of the department, was taken to the nearby St. Mary Medical Center and treated for smoke inhalation.

"You don't really think about it," Zormier said of Ahmad's decision to enter the burning structure. "You just go in and do what you can do."

Another police officer with the department, 29-year-old Noah Frizzell, also was taken to the hospital Tuesday night as a result of injuries he suffered after crashing his squad car while responding to the fire, Zormier said.

Frizzell was driving to the scene on Third Street, just east of Ash Street, when he hit a patch of ice, lost control of his vehicle and struck two trees before coming to a stop in the roadway median, the chief said. No other vehicles or individuals were involved.

When a nearby resident raced over to check on the officer, Frizzell was conscious and talking, Zormier said.

"He knew what happened," the chief said.

Frizzell was admitted to St. Mary Medical Center where he is in good condition, Zormier said.

Noah Frizzell

Officer Noah Frizzell was taken to the hospital Tuesday night as a result of injuries he suffered after crashing his squad car while responding to a fire in Hobart. 

Firefighters were called out shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday in response to the blaze in the downtown building that housed Copper Penny Tanning on the first floor and apartments above, Hobart Assistant Fire Chief John Papka said at the scene Wednesday morning.

There were no fatalities, but a few firefighters were treated for injuries resulting from slipping on the ice, he said.

The cause of the blaze was still under investigation Wednesday morning as firefighters continued hosing down the building to prevent the fire from rekindling. Other crews swept the ice-covered streets and boarded up the broken windows of the structure.

"We're taking a look at structural integrity," Papka said.

He pointed out how the bricks were separating around the second-floor windows of the structure and the potential for further damage as colder and wet weather move into the area in the next few days.

Barriers were being set up around the building as a precaution in case the structure collapses, Papka said.

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The streets near the burned building were closed off to all but emergency vehicles Wednesday morning, which left nearby business owner Scott Wasserman with the challenge of notifying customers of his Pet Stylz grooming salon they'd need to reach the site on foot.

"It smells like smoke from the fire," said stylist Jillian Shikles, noting that otherwise their business was untouched by the nearby blaze.

Wasserman said the fire had not yet resulted in any lost business.

"He had just reopened," he said of Copper Penny Tanning.

He pointed out a stack of postcards on the front counter of his business that announced the Jan. 2 reopening of the tanning salon.

Hobart fire

A crew boards up damaged windows at the scene of Tuesday night's blaze at 538 E. Third St. in downtown Hobart.

Lorraine Guillen, who lives across the street from the tanning salon, said she started to notice smoke and flames coming from the building around 9 p.m.

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"There were flames and smoke everywhere," Guillen said.

"Firefighters were rescuing people out of windows. People's lives were at risk. I just cannot thank our first responders enough. I saw them in action tonight, and they were all-hands-on-deck."

Hobart fire Lt. John Reitz said firefighters backed out of the building when the second floor and roof started to collapse.

As firefighters poured water on the building, the streets became icy, he said. The cold temperatures complicated firefighters' efforts, slowing them down.

It was difficult for the city to put down salt while firefighters were working.

"It's an old building," he said. "It says on the outside roughly 1897. It's a big piece of the downtown area."

Times staff writers Anna Ortiz and Sarah Reese contributed to this report.

Check back at nwi.com for updates as this story develops.

Gallery: Crews battle fire in Hobart

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.