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Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2002

More than 20 tenants displaced by blaze

February 19, 2002

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Mike Brien was awakened about 1:30 a.m. Monday by a police officer pounding on his apartment door. His building was on fire; he had to get out.

"I got some clothes on and threw some things in a duffel bag and got out," Brien, 37, said a few hours later as he stood outside Coach Light Apartments, 1002 W. 24th St.

He was one of the lucky ones.

Janet D. Murphy, 59, died in the blaze that started in her second-floor apartment, said Warren Zimmerman, owner of the apartment building.

Fire & Medical officials wouldn't confirm the victim's identity by Monday evening. Chief Deputy Mark Bradford said the victim was burned beyond recognition. An autopsy was done Monday by medical examiners in Topeka, but identity still had not been confirmed, Bradford said. Results of the autopsy were not released.

The blaze, which started in a bed in the apartment occupied by Murphy, was blamed on careless use of smoking materials, Bradford said. The fire caused an oxygen cylinder to explode, he said.

"She was a heavy smoker, and she had a lot of health problems," Zimmerman said of Murphy, noting that she sometimes required oxygen to breathe.

Firefighters responded to the blaze about 1:30 a.m. after a 911 call from someone living in the apartment building, Bradford said. Police officers Terry Haak and Max Miller were the first to arrive and went inside to begin waking residents, Bradford said.

"There was very, very heavy smoke coming out of the apartment, and then the fire broke through and the flames came rolling out the front," Bradford said.

Firefighters had just entered the building and were on the stairwell when the oxygen tank exploded, Bradford said. The explosion knocked many of the bricks off the front wall, but the firefighters were not injured.

More than 30 firefighters fought the blaze, bringing it under control by 2:30 a.m., Bradford said.

More than 20 residents escaped the fire uninjured. Displaced residents were either receiving assistance from the Douglas County Chapter of the American Red Cross or staying with relatives after the fire.

Damage to the building was estimated at $250,000 by Fire & Medical officials. The 18-unit building and land was valued at $539,000 for tax purposes in 2001, county appraisal records show.

In addition to Murphy's apartment, six other apartments in the center part of the building sustained serious smoke and water damage, Bradford said.

The victim's body was found in the bedroom of her apartment, Bradford said. The victim died in the fire, but investigators think death came before the explosion, he said.

Murphy was an employee in the Kansas University Career and Employment Center for several years. She retired in 1995 because of health problems, KU officials said.

"She always enjoyed working with the students and the alums when they would come back," said Ann Hartley, associate director of the Career and Employment Center.

Zimmerman, who had been staying in Texas, was on his way back to Lawrence after learning about the fire. He said Murphy had lived at Coach Light more than 20 years.

Murphy is Lawrence's first fire fatality since 1997. That year, two men died in a January fire at Sundance Apartments, 1407 W. Seventh St. The cause was careless smoking, fire investigators said.

A 5-year-old boy died in a September fire that year caused by children playing with matches, fire officials said.

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