A fast-moving fire Saturday afternoon destroyed a three-story apartment building under construction and damaged two others, as hundreds of onlookers stood in a nearby field and watched.
The fire at Chase Court Apartments, 1942 Stewart Ave., caused an estimated $600,000 damage $500,000 to the decimated building and $100,000 combined to the two neighboring structures. The three-alarm blaze sent billowing smoke high above Lawrence and produced flames that could be seen for miles.
Only three minutes after the fire was called in to 911 at 1:21 p.m., a battalion chief arrived and reported the apartment building was "well-involved," said Mark Bradford, deputy chief with Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical.
All but the north wall of the apartment building had collapsed by the time the fire was brought under control about 2:10 p.m.
"Two firefighters suffered minor burns and were treated at the scene," Bradford said. There were no other injuries.
Fire investigators worked into the night Saturday trying to determine a cause for the fire that originated in the unoccupied apartment building. Three-story apartment buildings to the north and south sustained damage from the heat and flames, Bradford said.
Only the north building was occupied. The few people who were home were evacuated safely, Bradford and other witnesses said.
Andrew Schillinger, a Kansas University freshman from Olathe, was one of the occupants. He said he had been spending a quiet afternoon unpacking boxes in his new apartment when someone began pounding on his door.
"Some lady was yelling for everyone to get out," he said.
Schillinger did, and saw the building next door engulfed in flames and smoke. Fire also was shooting from the roof of his building, but firefighters quickly extinguished that small blaze as Schillinger and others who lived in the building looked on from across the street at the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority house, 2005 Stewart Ave.
'No way we can rebuild'
A total of 31 firefighters responded to the scene aboard five fire trucks, four of them ladder trucks with aerial hoses. Three ambulances stood by.
The Overland Park Fire Department was asked to send two trucks to Lawrence to standby for emergencies in other areas of town, Bradford said. That request, however, was canceled before the trucks arrived, he said.
Chase Court is owned by Doug Compton and his firm, First Management Inc., Lawrence. Compton solemnly stood and watched as the walls of the apartment building collapsed. He said the building had been ready for Sheetrock to be installed.
"The sad thing is all of the apartments were pre-leased for August," Compton said. "There's no way we can rebuild in time for August."
Compton said he had been at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds when he saw the smoke and got a call from construction workers at one of the other buildings under construction.
"Thank goodness we have all this fire apparatus," Compton said.
First Management construction workers Lon Ihry and Kelly Hoss were working in a third apartment building under construction when they smelled smoke. Then they saw the flames in the other building, called 911 by cell phone and ran to alert those living in the adjacent occupied building.
"One lady had a couple of cats and I helped her get them out, and then she took off," Ihry said.
Lawrence resident Erik Nelson was in the skies above the city taking flying lessons when he noticed the massive fire. Even at an altitude of 6,000 feet, he said he could see white, puffy smoke from the fire outside the plane's windows.
"It's a good thing there wasn't any wind today," Nelson said after landing at Lawrence Municipal Airport and driving to the apartment complex to get a closer look at what he'd spotted from the air. "It could have spread."
Larry Kluge of Chicago was driving around campus with his family when they spied the flames from blocks away. The Kluges are in town to watch their daughter, Jennifer, graduate today.
"As we got closer, we thought, 'Oh my God. Could that possibly be our complex?'" Larry Kluge said.
Jennifer Kluge, an art major, lives on the second floor of the building just north of the one that burned. She and her family spent the rest of the afternoon pacing back and forth across the street as firefighters bombarded the building next door with water.
Blocked by police from checking on her apartment, Kluge worried that five years worth of paintings stored inside might be ruined and that she wouldn't be able to get her cap and gown to wear for graduation today.
But regalia can be replaced. Jennifer Kluge and her family are just glad she wasn't hurt.
"We're going to go have a nice dinner," said Sandy Kluge, Jennifer's mother. "It's only things that are in there."
Several KU students were in the process of moving out of Alpha Gamma Delta when they saw the fire across Stewart Avenue to the east. Among them was Kelsey Thomas, a Stilwell freshman.
"We were loading things in the car when we saw a deck burning," Thomas said. "We went in and called 911. When we came back out just five minutes later the whole thing was in flames."
Bradford said windows had not yet been installed in the all-wood apartment building that was destroyed. The openness probably caused the fire to spread rapidly, he said.
Most of those living in the north building damaged by fire were expected to be able to move back in by late Saturday, Bradford said. Six apartments suffered smoke damage and broken windows. Although Douglas County Red Cross came to the scene to see if its occupancy services would be needed, director Jane Blocher said First Management was putting up temporarily displaced residents at other vacant apartments it owns around town.
Chase Court has three occupied 24-unit apartment buildings, including one that was damaged by the fire. Three other 24-unit buildings were under construction, including the one that was destroyed and one that was damaged.