The college home of four longtime Stillwater friends bound since grade school by a love of music went up in flames and smoke in a few terrifying moments Monday morning, leaving two of them dead and the other two fortunate to have escaped.

Families and communities in two states were in mourning Tuesday.

"They all ended up together," said Connie Isakson, mother of Garret Isakson, one of the four 2009 Stillwater Area High School graduates -- each now 21 -- whose off-campus apartment, atop a local real estate business near the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was destroyed in the blaze.

Investigators have yet to determine what led to the fire. Deputy Fire Chief Scott Burkart said that "as of now, we're not suspecting any type of suspicious activities."

Ross A. Livermore died at an Eau Claire hospital after the predawn fire in the 600 block of Water Street, an older neighborhood that accommodates a good share of the city's 11,000 college students.

Livermore was a sophomore on approved leave from the university and majoring in computer science.

Roommate Jacob Clarkson suffered serious burns and died Tuesday afternoon at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, according to police and a hospital spokeswoman. Clarkson was a senior and physics major.

Isakson, a junior management major, and Casey Malan, a senior English major, escaped and were treated at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire and released.

'A special friendship'

With only a few detours along the way, the cheery, fun-loving quartet was inseparable while growing up together, Connie Isakson said.

Friends since third grade, they clicked as they stoked Ponies fans in pep band at Stillwater Area High School: Isakson on sax, Malan on drums and Livermore and Clarkson on trombones. The latter two also were in jazz band.

The musical kinship carried over to college.

"It was a special kind of friendship. They were always together," Isakson said, struggling through tears. "And it went beyond just them. They knew -- we all knew -- each other's extended families, too.

"I'm hurting as much for them as I am for Garret."

Mike Malone, a music student at the university, was a good friend of Livermore's. The pair worked at Shell Lake Art Center in northwestern Wisconsin, conducting summertime music programs for young people.

Malone said his friend, who worked at Shell Lake for three summers, had a special talent for connecting with kids.

"Ross was extremely hardworking. He was responsible, but fun," Malone said. "He was kind of a big prankster."

Livermore played in both the marching and jazz bands at the university, he added, and Clarkson played in the jazz band, as well. While the entire campus 90 miles east of the Twin Cities was somber Tuesday, the music department was particularly hard-hit, Malone said.

Clarkson's family, in a statement, said that Jacob "enjoyed life and willed that others would have the chance for life, too. That's why we're honoring his decision to be an organ donor. We are so proud of him -- and we miss him more than words can say."

Connie Isakson said her son, who had recovered from recent major surgery, rejoined his friends at college last summer. In escaping from the fire Monday, he burned his hand on a doorknob and burned his back and shoulder trying to get through a doorway.

For Garret, "it's been a rough couple of years," she said.

Students at the university were rallying Tuesday to support the victims.

Brian Carlisle, dean of students, said the school was arranging clothing, food and shelter for Isakson and Malan, who lost their possessions. He added that the university foundation is providing money for them.

The school bookstore also is replacing whatever might have been lost -- supplies included -- and forgiving any costs.

A three-day drive on behalf of the students begins Wednesday at the school's Davies Center, where donations of food, clothing and money can be left and will later be distributed through the school's administration, Carlisle said.

No recent complaints

About 5:45 a.m. Monday, a police detective on his way to work saw flames coming from the windows of the lone second-story apartment above the real estate office.

Isakson and Malan had made it out, but Clarkson and Livermore were still inside.

Firefighters went in and joined police in attempting to resuscitate the two students, who were then taken to the hospital. The fire was under control within about two hours.

Brionna Quinehan and her roommates, university students who live in a house across from the real estate office, woke to sirens and barking loudspeakers. "Basically, the entire top front of the building was engulfed in flames," said Quinehan, who is from Coon Rapids.

The apartment is not subject to inspections, and there have been no complaints about the property to fire officials for at least five years, Burkart said. It is owned by Clear Water Real Estate, which occupies the space below and has other rental properties around town, he said.

Off-campus housing draws more than its fair share of fire calls, Burkart said. He said his department and the university regularly instruct students about fire safety, especially in dorms but also off campus.

Even for those who didn't know the four young men, Quinehan said, a weight of grief has hung over the campus. And, she added, it's brought home the importance of not brushing off fire safety.

"Everyone's talking about how we need to be a little more aware," she said. "We just ran a test [of our smoke detectors] today. This can happen to anyone." • 651-925-5039 • 612-673-4482