NOVI, Mich. (AP) — Five men who appear to be from Mexico likely were overcome by thick smoke and died in a fire at a home owned by their boss, who owned a Chinese restaurant, authorities said Monday.
The men were found in a basement that had stairs to the first floor but windows made of glass block, which would prevent any escape in a sudden emergency, said David Molloy, public safety director in Novi, 20 miles northwest of Detroit.
"Visibility was zero. The way the fire was developing, they were likely overcome by the smoke and couldn't make it" up the stairs, Molloy said of Sunday's fire. He added that the cause could be a mattress in the basement ignited by careless smoking.
Autopsies and efforts to identify the men were ongoing, although the victims appeared to be from Mexico, based on documents and evidence. It isn't known how long the men, in their 20s and 30s, had lived in the home or worked at the Chinese restaurant, Molloy said.
The treatment of immigrants who work in restaurants and live together has attracted attention nationwide, but most recently in the Chicago area, where Illinois' attorney general filed a lawsuit in November to stop alleged civil rights violations in housing and pay.
The lawsuit said Latinos were pursued for employment in buffet-style restaurants, which paid as little as $3.50 an hour, and discriminated against the workers based on race and national origin. One business placed up to 15 employees in an apartment with a single bathroom and no furniture, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.
"We're looking at all avenues of investigation to include human trafficking or illegal servitude. ... Our investigation is very broad at this point and we will investigate all avenues," Molloy told The Associated Press when asked about possible charges.
The house is in the restaurant owner's name, but he didn't regularly stay there, said Molloy, who added that he called 911 after arriving around 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
"By all accounts, these gentlemen had the ability to come and go. ... Witnesses said they would see them come out occasionally for a cigarette," the chief said.
The fire occurred in a comfortable neighborhood where some houses are worth more than $350,000.
"We have talked to him once," Molloy said of the owner. "We are looking to talk to him to connect the dots."
Molloy said investigators are getting help from federal authorities on the immigration status of the five men.
"The investigation is in the infancy stage," he said.
Detroit-area immigration attorney Carrie Pastor Cardinale, who is not involved in the case, said there still are many questions to be answered.
"My initial reaction is that these are the unfortunate consequences of forcing people to live in the shadows in order to make a living and the failure of federal law enforcement to enforce our immigration laws against employers," she said.