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Things lost, and saved, in the fire

Apartment residents rely on Red Cross emergency shelter for services

Posted: November 6, 2012 - 5:17pm  |  Updated: November 7, 2012 - 1:06am
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Dallas Ross went back into the Gastineau Apartments to rescue his dog, Bugs, on Monday. Tuesday they were visiting the American Red Cross shelter set up at Centennial Hall.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Dallas Ross went back into the Gastineau Apartments to rescue his dog, Bugs, on Monday. Tuesday they were visiting the American Red Cross shelter set up at Centennial Hall.

When Dallas Ross learned his apartment building was on fire and his dog — Bugs the Pug — was still upstairs, he raced into the building and ran up the four flights of stairs. The fire was just two doors down from his apartment, No. 402.

“It was filled with smoke, I couldn’t see anything,” Ross said, adding he crawled on his stomach to his front door and managed to get it open with his key.

Bugs was oblivious to the danger. Ross scooped him up and Army crawled out of the apartment, then raced outside.

“My face was black, I breathed in smoke, it was horrible,” Ross said. “But I survived, I got my dog. He’s good. They say if there’s one thing you can get, what would you get? And that was my dog.”

Ross, 31, was just one of the 40 to 50 residents of the Gastineau Apartments complex on South Franklin Street in downtown Juneau that caught fire Monday evening.

It took nine hours, every firefighter in town as well as additional firefighters from Sitka, and about two to two and a half million gallons of water to douse the flames that persisted from about 5 p.m. Monday to 2 a.m. Tuesday morning.

The cause of the fire is still unknown and under investigation, according to Capital City Fire/Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge.

No casualties, and only one minor treatable injury, were reported. Five people were treated for smoke inhalation, according to Bartlett Regional Hospital spokesman, Jim Strader.

A steady stream of displaced residents flowed into an emergency shelter set up in Centennial Hall late Monday evening by the American Red Cross of Alaska. A total of 41 people registered as displaced residents by 1 p.m. Tuesday, said Roger Rettig, the Disaster Services specialist in charge of the shelter.

Most of the residents, like Ben Disney, 39, were seeking basic necessities, such as short- and long-term shelter, clothes and food.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Disney said. “Don’t know what we’re going to do, have no idea where to go. That’s why we’re here. Because we have no idea who to contact.”

Disney was inside his apartment on the fourth-floor when he heard the fire alarm go off, which wasn’t an infrequent occasion.

“The alarm, it went off all the time, so you just kind of ‘Oh well, it’s another false alarm,’” he said.

Then, he heard a banging on his door from the building’s manager. When he opened the door, heavy smoke billowed in.

Both he and his wife, Rachel, who is pregnant, got out of the apartment safely before “it went up like a match box,” he said.

“I didn’t even grab a coat. I just bought this today” he said, looking down at the blue plaid zippered fleece he was wearing. “She’s pregnant and doesn’t even have any warm pants.”

“I loved my apartment actually,” Disney added. “It had a beautiful view, and everything that we owned was in that apartment, and it’s gone. It’s black.”

Hours before the fire began, Disney said he was just fired from his job as a job coach.

“Firing’s been a theme ...” Rachel said wryly.

Sabrina Bracher, a 24-year-old barista, went to the emergency shelter Monday evening to register as a displaced resident, and also to look for her cat. She was at work when the fire broke out and did not know whether it was saved by firefighters.

“The possibility of losing my pet, and still not knowing whether or not he made it out ...” Bracher said.

Bracher said she is relying on housing right now from her roller derby team. But when the time comes to find a new apartment, she’s not sure what she can afford based on what she described as a low income. The Gastineau Apartments — where she paid $950 in rent each month — was one of the few places she could afford and that accepted pets, she said.

“No matter what, I’m pretty sure I’m covered until I find a place,” she said, referencing the derby team. “But in the meantime, I’m just kind of waiting to get my rent and deposit back so I can start looking for another place to live.”

For Pauline McFarland, 53, who has lived on the second floor of the Gastineau Apartments for the past six years or so, the most pressing issue was being able to afford her anti-seizure medication that was lost in the fire.

A local clinic or the hospital, where she was transported Monday evening after the fire, was able to provide her with enough medicine to last until Tuesday. Now, she’s trying to pay for the refills, which costs $340.67 at Walmart. Medicaid won’t pay for it since she just refilled her prescriptions, said her boyfriend, Dennis Brockman, 54.

“I don’t got that kind of money, so I don’t know what I’m going to do about those,” McFarland said.

Early Tuesday morning, the former building manager, Elva Bontrager, 76, was walking her hairless Chinese Crested Dog, Ellery, toward the building to examine the damage.

“He keeps pulling to walk home, but there’s no home to go to,” she said.

 

Emergency shelter

Local hotels offered displaced residents a one night stay free-of-charge on Monday evening, temporarily eliminating the need for housing at the emergency shelter at Centennial Hall.

But with that offer expiring, volunteers have set up rooms at Centennial Hall for overnight housing.

Dozens of single-person turquoise cots line the three ballrooms in the building. One is designated as the men’s dorm, the other as a women’s dorm, and the third as a family dorm.

Rettig says he’s not sure if they will be used because they are still assessing the need. Many people seem to be living temporarily with friends and family, he said.

If no one spends the night at the shelter, it’s likely the shelter will not remain open past Wednesday. Rettig says it’s open on a need-basis, and as of mid-day Tuesday, they had permission to keep the shelter operational until mid-day Wednesday.

Juneau’s emergency programs manager Tom Mattice said in an interview around noon on Tuesday that assessing the needs of the displaced residents is “first and foremost” on his list.

“We’re working with understanding the need, first and foremost, and then working with the tenants and the landlord to understand where we can go from here,” Mattice said. “It’s a long-term progress but we need to do it in a short period of time because we need to get them back into suitable long-term housing, and the shelter’s obviously just a short-term housing operation.”

The best way to assess that need is for the displaced residents to register with the Red Cross at the emergency shelter, which places them into a Red Cross database.

“It’s kind of the starting point for getting services and referrals to housing agencies,” Rettig said of the database.

“A lot of those people will be able to take care of themselves, and that’s great,” Mattice added. “But if you do need services, reach out sooner than later so that we can understand that need.”

Long-term housing will almost undoubtedly be one of the primary issues for displaced residents.

Rettig said about a half a dozen Juneauites who are property owners have stopped by the shelter to advise them what sort of apartments they have available.

It wasn’t known how affordable those apartments were.

Mattice added, “The trick is now moving forward.”

Donations of non-perishable food, clothing and the like are still being accepted and can be dropped off at the Salvation Army, 439 West Willoughby Street.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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“A lot of those people will be able to take care of themselves, and that’s great,” Mattice added. “But if you do need services, reach out sooner than later so that we can understand that need.” -- Tom Mattice, CBJ Emergency Services Coordinator
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