Archive for Sunday, October 9, 2005

Three still missing from apartment fire

October 9, 2005


Fire investigators expect to start searching through the rubble of a burned-out apartment building today as they try to determine what caused the massive fire at a northwestern Lawrence apartment complex on Friday.

Nearly 50 local, state and federal investigators have been gathering in Lawrence, with their equipment, for the effort, said Mark Bradford, interim chief of the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Department.

Included are up to 25 investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' national response team, who were to arrive in Lawrence by Saturday night, Bradford said.

"We're able to pull upon their expertise and their large staff to come in and do this in a much quicker fashion," Bradford said during a news conference Saturday across the street from the fire scene at the Boardwalk Apartments complex in the 500 block of Fireside Drive.

The fire caused $2.1 million in insured losses to the building, Bradford said. That doesn't include contents and vehicles parked near the building that also were damaged, he said.

Three still missing

Meanwhile, three people remain missing from the building. Bradford wouldn't release their names, but Maria Gonzalez fears that her 50-year-old brother, Jose Gonzalez, is one of them.

"They say to prepare for the worst," Maria Gonzalez said of her conversations with fire investigators and relief workers.

Jose Gonzalez.

Jose Gonzalez.

Saturday morning a distraught Gonzalez stood behind yellow police tape and stared across the street at the area of the building where her brother had lived since April. Only ashes and piles of rubble remained where his apartment was on the first floor near a laundry room of the three-story, 76-unit building.

Maria Gonzalez and others in her family haven't heard from Jose Gonzalez since Thursday night. A relative in Texas had talked to him by phone that evening, she said.

"He had just taken a shower and was going to watch the Houston Astros game on television," Maria Gonzalez said. "He hasn't contacted anybody. We haven't been able to call him. He wouldn't go anywhere without telling us."

Jose Gonzalez also had failed to show up for work Friday at Quality Electric Inc. in Lawrence, Maria Gonzalez said.

'Just chaos'

Douglas County emergency dispatchers began receiving numerous 911 calls reporting the fire at 1:19 a.m. Friday. Firefighters arrived to find the blocklong building in flames.

Occupants on the upper two floors were jumping out of windows trying to escape. Many broke bones in the falls and some were burned. About 20 residents were either taken by ambulance or went on their own to Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Most were treated and released. Three people were transferred to Kansas City hospitals with critical injuries. There was no new information about their conditions Saturday, Bradford said. Their names were not released.

"It was just chaos around here," Jason Helm, maintenance worker at the apartment complex, said shaking his head Saturday morning as he recalled that night.

David Thomas lives in the apartment building across the street. About 12:30 a.m. Thursday he and his wife, Leah Thomas, went onto the walkway outside their second-floor apartment to smoke cigarettes. They saw nothing out of the ordinary and the night was quiet, David Thomas said. They went back inside and Leah went to bed.

About 30 minutes later David Thomas heard noise and went outside again to see the building across the street engulfed in flames. He said he saw someone on the third-floor walkway who seemed to be collapsing to the floor and then the walkway and that portion of the building collapsed.

"It was the most horrific thing I've ever seen," Thomas said.

Thomas told his story to a fire investigator Saturday afternoon. Investigators spent much of their time Friday and Saturday interviewing witnesses as well as occupants of the fire-ravaged building, Bradford said.

Structural threats remain

Saturday night, no effort had yet been made to go into the rubble because there were still some smoldering hot spots. The remains of the building were also structurally unsafe. ATF is bringing in structural engineers to see what needs to be done to allow today's fire scene investigation to begin, Bradford said.

Although many people have already been interviewed, Bradford asked that anyone who occupied the burned building to contact the fire investigators again by calling 832-7600. Some of the people interviewed the first time may have moved to other locations, he said.

How to help/how to seek assistance

Here's some contact information to help victims of the Boardwalk Apartments fire, or to get help: ¢ To help fire officials determine who is missing and who has been found, call 832-7600. ¢ To make a cash donation to the Douglas County chapter of the American Red Cross, which was providing clothes, food and shelter to fire victims, call 843-3550. ¢ Kansas University students who were victims of the fire can seek help on academic issues from the Academic Achievement and Access Center, 864-4064. ¢ Fire victims who need a new place to live can check out a clearinghouse of apartment vacancies at For more information, call Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority director Barbara Huppee at 830-2250.

"One of the fire investigators will recontact them possibly to ask further questions," Bradford said.

Investigators hope continued interviews and other information being sought also will lead to good news about the missing people. He said releasing information about those people now could hinder the investigation, although he didn't say how.

"Originally we thought we had 20 people missing," Bradford said. "Through various interviews and investigative techniques we hope to be able to find the three occupants. That's our goal. That's our mission and we'll go from there."

Bradford wouldn't speculate on what might have caused the fire or where it might have started.

In addition to conducting interviews, investigators also were assessing the best methods to use to investigate the scene.

"That's part of the investigation you don't see because people are not out here, but it is continuing and the process issues are continually being discussed," Bradford said.

Several ATF agents and fire department investigators were looking over the ruins from the street and taking photographs Saturday. The Kansas Highway Patrol had taken aerial photos, Bradford said.

"We have to do this very methodical," Bradford said. "It is going to take time."

In addition to ATF, the fire department is being assisted by the Lawrence Police Department, the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, Kansas University Public Safety Office and the Kansas Fire Marshal's Office.

"If we were doing this ourselves we would be here for weeks," Bradford said.

'It was scary'

Saturday saw a continuous stream of onlookers at the fire scene. Some of them were former tenants of the building who barely escaped the flames, including Brady DeSanti, a Kansas University graduate student.

DeSanti was accompanied by his parents, from Omaha, Neb., who stood with him and looked at where his first-floor apartment had been. They took some photographs.

DeSanti had been alerted to the fire by people screaming on the floor above him. He opened his door and saw flames. He ran through them to escape and suffered minor burns to an ear and the back of his neck. He sought treatment on his own at LMH.

"It was pretty scary," DeSanti said.

DeSanti also considers himself lucky in another way. He had made a recent decision to obtain renters insurance.

500 block of Fireside Drive

"It's turned out to be the best decision I've made," he said.

Some tenants in other buildings at the Boardwalk complex said Saturday that the fire had frightened them and they wanted to move. Thomas wants to move his family from their unit across the street but management didn't want to let him out of his lease, he said. His apartment sustained smoke damage, he said.

"I have asthma and my children have asthma and we can't live in this," he said.

The Boardwalk management released a short statement Saturday stating that they had a number of tenants who had lost everything in the fire, including some pets. Furniture, canned food items, bedding and blankets, "anything that makes a house" is needed, the statement said.

The Douglas County Chapter of the American Red Cross had handled 80 cases of victim assistance, including some families, director Jane Blocher said Saturday. Only two or three families required assistance in being relocated to hotels, she said.


whosaid 12 years, 3 months ago

Has anyone made mention of smoke alarms yet? Every article I have read has mentioned people being alerted by either screams or people banging on doors. I hope this isn't one of those cases where negligence on something as simple as working smoke alarms has cost people their lives.

I feel horrible for anyone connected with this. It is a big fear for most of us.

Nikki May 12 years, 3 months ago

I've wondered the same thing. I'm suspecting there weren't many, or they weren't working. Why would ALL the victims not hear an alarm. As wide spread as this was, someone should have heard an alarm. I can understand if an alarm in the first place to catch fire wasn't working, but EVERYPLACE? I hope that is part of the investigation.

The city has someone inspect rental properties, but I don't think this includes apartments.

onceinawhile 12 years, 3 months ago

A loved one of mine lived in one of the apartments that is gone now due to the fire. As he was awake and leaving the building at about 1:30 a.m., he didn't hear his smoke alarm going off or any others going off either.

Janet Lowther 12 years, 3 months ago

What I wonder is how a residential building this big came to exist without firewalls and fire doors to keep the whole thing from going up!

With appropriate firewalls the damage would have been much more limited. A friend lives in a large three story apartment building (built in the late '60s) with fire walls between every twelve units.

Unless they find this building was torched - and torched with a LOT of accelerant, the extent of this fire represents a major failing of the building permitting & inspection process.

kansasfire911 12 years, 3 months ago

There were fire walls they burnt and crumbled. If you go out there you see some of them.

pity2bu 12 years, 3 months ago

Tenants have a habit of removing the batteries out of the smoke detectors or they did not replace the old batteries with new ones.

As for the firewalls, these buildings are to old and they did not require firewalls back then. These apartments are at least 35 years old.

kansasfire911 12 years, 3 months ago

As someone who was there, yes they do have fire walls. If you look at each building along the roof you will see brick extend up past the rooof line thats the fire wall.

Mari Aubuchon 12 years, 3 months ago

Smoke alarms should be replaced every ten years, regardless of whether or not they are working. This is sadly often not the case in rentals. Also, only one apt I have ever lived in did a biannual battery change and extinguisher check. I really appreciated this because I knew that my neighbors' alarms were in working order as well as my own. Unfortunately, some alarms operate on electrical power without battery backup and will not function if the power supply is affected by the fire.

frog 12 years, 3 months ago

Its time to change how we do things. Sprinklers, fire alarms and two exits in every home and apartment. Ya it takes money but its the poor who suffer. It is high time we change the building codes for the good and safety of our people.and not for the benefit of saving money. A 30 dollar escape ladder could have done wonders in each apartment. I pray for all the firefighters and police that had to witness people jumping from the windows to save themselves it has to be troubling. They did a great job and Im proud of them all.

Ragingbear 12 years, 3 months ago

There were smoke alarms there. But the fire moved so rapidly, and the nature of the smoke alarms was such that the fire would have to be inside the apartment before they went off.

Also, there were firewalls. They pretty much stopped/slowed the fire about as cood as matchlight charcoal briquettes. This seems to indicate that there was an accellerant of some sort used, creating a very very hot fire that spread the way it did.

Aileen Dingus 12 years, 3 months ago

I realise that this is probably not the best time to say this, but Dave- if you have asthma and your kids have asthma, what the heck are you doing smoking cigarettes? Get some help- quit now so you can see your grandkids.

On the fire- one thing I heard was it was accelerated by individual propane tanks from gas grills exploding. Is there any truth to this?

frog 12 years, 3 months ago

The fire spread from the front of the structure and moved to the sides and rear because of the fire load from the decking , exterior siding material and open walkway. A fire wall is designed to slow the progress of an interior fire , provided that the wall is intact and no holes or walkways are in them unlike the ones at boardwalk.

Leandra Galindo 12 years, 3 months ago

It really hurts me till this day to realize that I lost a great friend in the fire, in which her body was recovered out of the ruins this morning. I knew she was in her apartment, because her car was parked in the back and it seems that the firefighters really made no effort to go through the back, because I am sure she was making an effort to get someone's attention through her window. I understand that the flames were out of control, but I think she could of been saved and I will have to live with this for the rest of my life and asking myself on a daily basis "what if." All I ask of the City of Lawrence is to keep the families in their prayers.

robinrander 12 years, 3 months ago

It wouldn't seem that smoke alarms would do much good if the fire was out-pacing the smoke. Several alarms may have gone off, but fire--especially one engulfing an apartment complex--is not exactly a quiet thing. You have to consider the speed of the fire, the intensity of the heat, and the state of the building. Our best defenses against fire work the best when all the elements--smoke, fire, heat--come in the right order. Sometimes they don't. My gut instinct is that this will come down to the condition of the building, not the condition of the smoke detectors.

I'm keeping all of the fire victims in my heart and prayers.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.