An early morning fire displaced about 20 residents at a two-story apartment complex near Clinton Parkway and Kasold Drive. Flames spread quickly through the complex, located at 2040 Heatherwood Drive, according to witnesses. Firefighters rescued several residents from second-floor balconies.
Emergency crews were dispatched to Heatherwood Valley Apartments at 5:57 a.m. Saturday. One resident suffered nonlife-threatening injuries, and was taken by a private vehicle to Lawrence Memorial Hospital for further evaluation. No firefighters were injured combating the blaze, but their efforts were briefly hampered when a private vehicle drove over a 5-inch fire hose.
Members of the Douglas County chapter of the American Red Cross were on the scene counseling displaced residents. David Gage, president of Gage Management Inc., which operates the complex, said about 20 residents were forced from their homes. He said a dozen units were damaged by the fire, but four of those were vacant. The complex was equipped with smoke detectors, and each apartment was furnished with a fire extinguisher, he said.
"Most of it's due to smoke and water damage. There were only two apartments that got burned pretty bad," Gage said. "It's not a good situation. We've been working since 6 o'clock this morning to find people places to stay."
Gage said his company was attempting to house residents in vacant properties operated by Gage Management, as well as helping them find alternative accommodations and even releasing tenants from their leases. While apartments on the eastern block of the complex were rendered uninhabitable, residents safely remained in the western block of the building.
Jane Blocher, director of the Red Cross, said the Red Cross was assisting displaced residents, including eight Kansas University students and two faculty members, in procuring food, clothing, accommodations and medicine. The KU Office of Student Success also assisted the students and faculty members.
Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Division Chief Eve Tolefree said investigators had yet to determine the cause of the fire, but witnesses and Gage said it began when a mattress came in contact with a candle.
Stella Self and Jeff Connor live in an apartment across the hall from the second-floor apartment where the fire began. They escaped as flames began to engulf the apartment complex, after being awakened by the neighbor who lived in the apartment where the fire started.
"As soon as I opened the door, I saw his apartment and it was full of flames," Connor said.
Noble Lathrom, 27, was awakened by the same resident, whom he said was warning neighbors of the danger, despite severe burns. The fire was vicious, Lathrom said.
"There were flames shooting out (the neighbor's) door and the window. Nobody's going back in these apartments," Lathrom said.
"I feel lost and confused. It's not every day you find yourself homeless in 10 minutes," Self said. "I don't know where I'm going to go yet. I've got my kids covered and that is all I was worried about."
Tolefree said lessons learned in the aftermath of the deadly Boardwalk Apartments fire in 2005 helped prevent a disaster from occurring Saturday morning.
"I think with the initial dispatch information, with some dispatch knowing that there were occupants that needed to be rescued from the second-floor balcony, a second and third alarm was struck. Immediately, they knew they needed to rescue a couple of occupants from the balcony," she said.
The Boardwalk disaster may have made residents more aware of the need for escape plans, Tolefree said.
"I have heard that there were maybe two or three occupants that escaped on their own from one of those extension ladders that they threw out their window," she said.
Neither Self, Lathrom nor his roommate James McCarty, 26, had renter's insurance. Blocher said only one resident of the 20 affected by the fire had renter's insurance.
Blocher reiterated the importance of renter's insurance. "It is so affordable," she said. "For what we spend on a weekly basis at Starbucks or going to the drive-through, you can get yourself covered for all your losses for a few lattes."