What Nicole Bingham liked most about the Boardwalk Apartments, her mother says, was the diversity.
Compared to the Kansas University dorms, her sorority house or a student-dominated complex, this was a taste of the real world. Among her neighbors was a young girl who sold cookies door-to-door, a grandfather in a wheelchair who'd sit outside and rock his grandson. The person next door managed a grocery.
Her 76-unit, three-story building was full of students, restaurant workers, immigrants, manual laborers and families.
"It made her feel like she was grown up - that she was living in a neighborhood, not just a student in a dorm," Nancy Bingham said. "She had everything she ever wanted. She had her own place where friends could come and see her and stay with her. She was working. She was in school. She was the happiest she'd ever been in her life."
Nicole Bingham, a KU senior, was the youngest of three people killed in the fire, along with electrician Jose Gonzalez and social worker Yolanda Riddle. For those who knew them, the pain of their loss hasn't gone away.
A year ago today, in the middle of the night, the building at Boardwalk Apartments erupted into a blocklong inferno. One eyewitness described it as "hell on earth."
A troubled, then-20-year-old resident of the building, Jason A. Rose, has been charged with setting the fire.
The 911 recordings from that night are almost too terrible to contemplate: people shouting and pleading for help, emergency dispatchers trying to stay calm and reassure callers that help is on the way. At one point, a recorded call descends into nothing but the sound of high-pitched screaming.
The fire melted the sides of cars parked near the building and blew bits of ash throughout the neighborhood just off Sixth Street. People ran through sheets of flame and jumped from windows to survive.
"It was unbelievable. I've never seen another fire like it," said Adam Hoover, a Douglas County Sheriff's deputy who lived at the apartment complex and responded to the scene.
In her nightmares, Nancy Bingham tries to find a way to save her daughter and get her out of the fire. She said those dreams stopped back in June, replaced by a dream where she and her daughter are together doing normal things and Nicole simply disappears.
"I'm realizing as the anniversary comes, the sadness is starting to be overwhelming again," Bingham's mother said. "Then the holidays are coming, and her birthday is next Wednesday ... "
'We lost everything'
A heap of rubble sits where the building once stood, as the owners, Boardwalk Apartments LLC., attempt to settle an insurance dispute about how much the policy for the building was worth. Eventually, the company plans to rebuild.
A memorial of plastic flowers sits at the base of the chain-link fence surrounding the site.
Seven buildings at the complex still stand, but many residents moved away. Among them was Hoover, the sheriff's deputy. He said he might have considered staying if he'd lived there alone, but his daughter and ex-wife, who escaped the flames, couldn't stand to be there any more.
For Ngwangfuri Sherpa, 32, a Nepalese immigrant who punched through his window screen that night to escape his first-floor apartment with his wife and then-3-year-old daughter, the need to find a new home quickly was more pressing than for some.
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He said when he first came to the United States about three years ago after winning an emigration lottery in Nepal, he had no credit history, and most complexes here wouldn't let him rent. He got his apartment at the Boardwalk, he said, with help from another Nepalese man in Lawrence who co-signed for him.
The same day as the fire, he accepted the Boardwalk management's offer to relocate to another apartment within the complex, where he and his family live today.
"We lost everything in there," he said. "We're new in the United States. We're just settling, and that happened."
No code changes
After the fire, a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent testified that the 40-year-old building's outdated design helped contribute to the fire's rapid spread: vertical slats on the railings that went up like matchsticks, thin plywood decking and partially covered stairwells that funneled heat upward.
"In my position, you realize that there are going to be buildings out there that may have been OK 40 years ago, but by today's standards they're not," Lawrence Fire Marshal Rich Barr said. "They're not as good as they are today from a fire-protection standpoint."
Still, the catastrophe has not been enough to prompt changes to the city's fire code. Some thought the fire would renew calls for requiring sprinkler systems in old apartment buildings - not just in new ones - but that hasn't happened.
"Just because of one instance, you can't change the law. You shouldn't, and (Barr) is going to have a hell of a fight with landlords if he does try to change it," said Bob Ebey, vice president of Landlords of Lawrence. "The people that are saying, 'One incident, it should be corrected' are people that it's not taking money out of their own pocket to fix."
The building was built under the proper codes at the time, Barr said, and it had passed a fire inspection weeks before the fire. Barr said that to justify forcing old apartments such as Boardwalk to make fire-safety changes, there would have to be a pattern evident in other buildings with similar construction.
So far, he said, there's nothing to point to.
"Granted, the fire spread very quickly, but am I worried about all the other apartment buildings that are currently out there that are constructed the same way? Do I believe that if we don't do anything, we're going to have a fatal accident in one of those buildings? No, I don't," Barr said.
The features that contributed to the fire's spread, he said, may not be ideal, but they don't pose a distinct hazard to life "in and of themselves."
Nancy Bingham said it's hard for her to think about the safety questions raised by the disaster "because it takes me back to trying to find a way to save (Nicole)."
"I don't know how anyone can live in that complex knowing that in a matter of 20 to 30 minutes, a whole building that big can be on fire to the point that you couldn't get out," she said.
Remembering the dead
At Quality Electric, where Jose Gonzalez once worked, a manager this week fashioned a memorial by putting Gonzalez's name back on his employee mailbox, along with some of Gonzalez's favorite Hershey miniature chocolates and two empty packs of Marlboro Light cigarettes. Gonzalez didn't smoke, but he collected other people's empty packs so he could buy things with the proof-of-purchase coupons.
The day of the fire, when Gonzalez didn't show up for work, he had two empty packs of cigarettes waiting for him in his mailbox.
"It's a very small gesture, but it'll mean something to the guys here," project manager Dale Wolford said of the shop's tribute. "We lost a very good employee."
Passion for justice
Riddle, known by nicknames including "Alonz" and "Yo," worked for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Friend Juanita Marshall remembers Riddle working two hours overtime one night so she could find a Wal-Mart voucher for a family with two working parents who had just spent their last money on groceries.
"She was extremely persistent," Marshall said.
Riddle is being remembered in part through a memorial scholarship at Haskell Indian Nations University designated for social work students. The school will give two $1,000 scholarships in the spring. One of the requirements is that, like Riddle, the students "possess a passion for social justice."
"We were all so shocked about what happened, especially since the main suspect was somebody that she probably would have tried to help," Marshall said. "I think we just wanted to help other native students get into that line of work - become a part of the solution."
A heart condition called long QT syndrome, commonly known as "sudden-death syndrome" caused Bingham to live her life differently from most people. She knew that at any moment, her heart could stop beating. The condition left Bingham vulnerable to a chaotic heart rhythm that could cause fainting, cardiac arrest or even a sudden death.
She was opinionated, at times bossy, and never afraid to speak her mind, her mother said. Because of her condition, Nicole Bingham had to avoid three things: extreme cold, extreme heat and stress.
Bingham's mother said she believed the fire brought the moment her daughter knew could come any time: that in the mayhem and intense heat, her heart simply stopped beating.
In Kansas City, a room at Nicole Bingham's favorite charity, the Ronald McDonald House, has been named in her honor, after a donation by her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. An inscription outside the door says, "Live every day."
A rescue 'miracle'
Amid the chaos that night, Nancy Bingham said one rescue worker's act may have changed her life. She called it "a miracle."
The act was this: A city fire inspector, Dave Davis, went to get members of Nicole Bingham's sorority and brought them to the scene to help comfort the mother. Nancy Bingham ended up staying with them that night at the sorority house, and she has gone back to visit them since.
If Davis hadn't done that, she said, she would have isolated herself and might not have survived the grief. She wrote him a thank-you note, and he wrote her a note thanking her for the thank-you note.
Other rescue workers have been honored for their heroism that night.
Hoover, the sheriff's deputy, was working 12-hour shifts and coming to his apartment mostly just to sleep and eat. He'd moved in with his ex-wife, who was still a close friend, and their daughter, because he needed a place to stay and had broken up with his girlfriend.
He and another sheriff's deputy, Jay Armbrister, won sheriff's awards later for their rescue work at the scene, which included pulling fire victims to safety.
Hoover described his actions as "just work."
Lawrence Police officers also have been nominated for awards, but the department has not yet announced the results.
One good thing that came from the fire, Hoover said, was the realization of how giving people can be in a disaster. He got gift cards from his department and other departments, as well as clothes, supplies and home furnishings. Lawrence Athletic Club, Deerfield School, the complex's management and the Red Cross all played a role.
"If I didn't have it, somebody wanted to give it to me," he said.
Another result of the fire for Hoover is that he believes it helped prompt him to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, from whom he'd separated months before the fire. Suddenly, they had something to talk about again. Now, they're married, and she's pregnant with a baby girl.
Boardwalk Apartments Fire
More on the Boardwalk Apartments Fire
- 6News video: 'Boardwalk Fire Trial' set to begin (02-01-07)
- 6News video: Confession in Boardwalk fire case under question (09-19-06)
- 6News video: Fire victims struggling with medical bills (08-09-06)
- 6News video: Fire victim shares story of survival (11-27-05)
- Judge allows confession in murder, arson case (02-02-07)
- Arson suspect wants statement off record (09-20-06)
- Boardwalk fire victims see some money from state (08-10-06)
- Time barely starting to heal wounds (02-27-06)
- Agent: Design helped fire's spread (02-24-06)
- Deputies honored for bravery (01-25-06)
- Photo Gallery: Jason Allen Rose
- Photo Gallery: After the fire at Boardwalk Apartments
- Photo Gallery: Fire at Boardwalk Apartments
- More in 2005 Boardwalk Fire Â»
How the fire began, and why, are two questions that may never be answered.
A fire investigator testified he didn't know of any accelerants, such as lighter fluid or gasoline, found at the scene.
The building resident charged with setting the fire, Jason A. Rose, is a former foster child with a history that, according to court testimony, included sexual and physical abuse. At the time of the fire, he'd recently moved out on his own and was working two fast-food jobs.
Those who know him have described him as gullible, a fan of pro wrestling, not mean-spirited and not mentally up to his real age. At Rose's last court appearance, the Rev. Leo Barbee of Victory Bible Church and others who know Rose declined to talk about him.
Rose had been caught shoplifting cigarette lighters in the past, and he was caught once with a smoldering rubber glove in the trash can of his room at a foster home. He admitted to officers he'd set about 20 fires in his life, but that includes legal fires such as campfires.
According to police testimony, Rose first told officers that on that night he had a piece of paper containing the phone number of someone who had tried to sell him marijuana. He was angry about it, he said, so he set it on fire and it spread to a railing.
When detectives pressed him, he eventually changed his story to say he was angry about receiving a box of photos and birthday cards from his biological parents, and that he set it on fire outside the building.
But a judge is now deciding whether to allow Rose's statement to police to be used in court, given Rose's mental difficulties. His trial is scheduled to begin in February.
So far, court testimony has not made clear whether detectives ever were able to corroborate his story.