The watch in Mike Scrocca’s dresser stopped at 4:19. That’s probably when the heat from the fire reached him. He was asleep on his mattress on the floor in the house he shared with five other University of Maryland students.
The party at Scrocca’s house on Princeton Avenue in College Park that rainy Friday night was a big one. Someone was celebrating a birthday. Guests played beer pong in the kitchen and did liquor shots through a big block of ice in the backyard. Lots of people crowded onto the covered porch out front.
Scrocca, a finance major three weeks from graduating, was in and out of the party—he wasn’t one to sit still. Nobody knows for sure, but he probably missed whatever altercation happened outside his house, whatever caused a drunk freshman walking by to get angry and come back.
Scrocca was in his second-floor bedroom when the freshman—a cellular-biology and genetics major who had grown up on the Eastern Shore—poured gasoline onto the couch on Scrocca’s wooden porch, ignited it, and ran.
Mike Scrocca’s parents would later hear there were marks in the soot on the windows of their son’s room—evidence that he’d tried to escape. It was nearly a year before they found out what really happened that night, but other people around the Maryland campus, good kids from good backgrounds, knew all along.
It’s hard to know what happens when college kids get together and kegs are tapped. The freshman, Daniel Murray, told coworkers later that night that several guys had made fun of him when he walked by a house party carrying a pink umbrella; he later told police he might have been pushed. Nobody who was at the party has acknowledged that incident, but investigators believe it happened. Something set Murray off, they say.
The fire killed Scrocca and left one of his housemates critically injured after jumping from a third-story window. The next day, before he heard someone had died, Murray told a coworker at R.J. Bentley’s, a popular College Park bar and restaurant, that he’d lit something on fire the night before. That coworker, conflicted by what he’d heard, sought advice from five friends.
As police searched for an arsonist and Scrocca’s family handed out reward fliers around campus, Murray went to class and hung out with his girlfriend. None of the students with information about the fire said a word.
Mary Scrocca was visiting her parents in Pennsylvania when her cell phone rang around 10 pm on Friday, April 29, 2005—the night of the party. It was her son Mike calling from school.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Mike said. “Why?”
“Because it’s 10 o’clock on a Friday night—why aren’t you out?”
Mike usually called home to New Jersey on Sundays; sometimes he and his mom talked three times a week. He had called one night from the road sophomore year and asked her to look up a street name in Philadelphia. He was on a scavenger hunt for the fraternity he was pledging, he told her, and had to steal the street sign. “Don’t worry about it, Mom,” he’d said.
Mike was often reassuring his mother he’d be fine. He’d started at Maryland just before September 11, 2001, and a few weeks later a tornado killed two students in College Park. During the sniper attacks, Mary would tell her son she didn’t want him out driving. “Mom, run the numbers,” he would say. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
On this night, Mike was calling for his dad, Tony. A friend was having computer problems, and Mike knew that Tony, a computer analyst, could help.
“I love you,” Mike said to his dad before he hung up. He always said that when he called home.
Mary’s phone rang again the next morning. It had been ringing and ringing, but she hadn’t heard it. Tony picked up—it was his wife’s sister.
“I need for you and Mary to be in the same room,” she said.
Tony handed her the phone: “It’s your sister—something’s wrong.” Mary thought the call had to be about Tony’s mother.
“There was a fire at Mike’s house last night,” her sister said, “and he didn’t make it.”
Mary dropped the phone and fell to the floor.
Mike Scrocca’s housemates didn’t think he was home the night of the fire. His bedroom door was closed, and his car wasn’t parked outside. He usually checked to see if people were awake when he came home, no matter what time it was, to see if anyone wanted to hang out. Friends had seen him leave the house when the party was winding down and assumed he’d slept somewhere else.
Scrocca had run into the sister of a friend from high school that night and offered to drive her home because it was raining. While he walked her into the apartment building where she was staying, his car got towed, so he went to a friend’s place nearby.
He and his buddies hung out and laughed about Scrocca’s car. It was 3 in the morning and everyone was half asleep, so Scrocca asked if he could crash there. His friends said sure, but they only had a loveseat, a tight fit for someone almost six feet tall. They told Scrocca he’d be more comfortable in his own bed, so he decided to go home.
Nobody at Scrocca’s house heard him come in. His best friend, Steve Blumberg, who lived down the hall, went to bed around 4 and smelled smoke a few minutes later. As the smoke detector sounded, Blumberg heard someone on the first floor screaming, “Fire! Fire! Get out of the house!” Blumberg grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.
He knew one of his housemates was at his girlfriend’s and another was out of town, and he thought Scrocca was out, so he banged on the other doors yelling, “Fire—everybody get out!” He tried to scream loudly enough and make enough noise so his housemate, Stephen “Tex” Aarons, who lived upstairs, could hear him.
Smoke filled the stairwell as Blumberg ran downstairs and saw the front right side of the house engulfed in flames. It was hard to breathe. When he got outside, he saw Aarons being taken away on a stretcher. He kept calling Scrocca’s cell phone to see where he was and tell him what had happened.
When Mike Scrocca was looking at colleges, he spent 15 minutes on the College Park campus before he turned and said to his dad, “This is it—this is where I want to go.”
Mary worried about Mike going to such a big university, but she saw his confidence blossom at Maryland. He pledged a fraternity and spent a semester in Spain. He’d walk into the gym and ask taller guys to play basketball. He made so many groups of friends that some of them hadn’t met until his funeral. He was known for quoting his favorite movie, Top Gun: “You can be my wingman anytime.”
Mary and Tony came to College Park a few times a year, often for football games. Two weeks before the fire, they’d driven to Baltimore to meet Mike, ten of his friends, and his brother, Brian, at Camden Yards. Mike had grown up idolizing Cal Ripken; his dad and brother were Yankees fans. The Orioles swept the Yankees that weekend, and they all hung out in the Inner Harbor. Mike called home later and said, “Mom, that was the best weekend of my life.”
After graduation, he’d planned to start a job in the internal-audit department at Johnson & Johnson, where he’d interned, about 15 minutes from his parents’ house.
The last time he visited home, he sat in the backyard and talked to his mom about the future. Things were getting serious now, he told her, and he’d have to make some important decisions. He said he’d soon meet the girl he was going to marry.
According to witness statements, Daniel Murray came into R.J. Bentley’s the morning after the fire and told a coworker named Adam what he’d done. He and Adam, who weren’t close friends, were at work early to set up R.J. Bentley’s stand for a Taste of College Park event. They were sharing stories of their drunk Friday nights.
Murray said he had been walking from a party to R.J. Bentley’s, where he often hung out when he wasn’t working, when three or four guys started harassing him and broke his umbrella; police could never confirm any type of assault. Murray described himself as “crazy, blackout drunk” and explained how he went back later with a gas can and lit the couch on fire where those guys had been sitting.