Three people homeless after their house burns

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2006

Tom Walls woke up early Sunday with flames batting at the window of his basement apartment at Third and Gold streets.

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"There was crackling and popping noise," he said later in the day, wearing jeans and a borrowed T-shirt.

Walls is one of three people left homeless Sunday night by a predawn fire that destroyed Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Gold Street, the church's McPhetres Hall and the house next door.

Walls said he wasn't ready to think about what he would do next.

"I put on my pants and my jacket and grabbed my phone. I wanted to get my passport, but there was no electricity so I couldn't see," Walls said.

Upstairs, the owner of the house, Shelby Edwards, said his 10-year-old daughter, Kelsey, woke him up.

Edwards, his fiancee, Jaye Johnson, and his daughter's friend, who was staying over, escaped with just the clothes on their backs and some family pets, he said.

"We lost everything - everything except what we came out with," Edwards said. Among the losses were family heirlooms that can't be replaced.

On a Sunday, there was no one able to give him an idea of what his insurance would cover, he added.

Also lost was Edwards' cat Syrus, who couldn't be found Sunday. He was like a member of the family, Edwards said. Two other Siamese cats, Sebastian and Serena, and a pet rat made it out.

"The animals are the important thing," he said. "We'll just move on."

While the Red Cross put Edwards and Johnson up Sunday night at a hotel, as they did Walls, Edwards said his daughter went to live with her mother. Her friend returned home.

Wayne Clark, who put together the disaster response team Sunday morning, said that when volunteers mobilized, the fire was thought to have driven more people from their homes.

"We first heard the Bergmann (Hotel) was burning down," he said.

Bergmann residents were evacuated from the Harris Street hotel as a precaution, along with other neighbors between Gold and Harris streets. The Red Cross was ready to open a shelter with 100 cots at Centennial Hall, with cooperation from the city, but less than a dozen people came in Sunday morning, Clark said.

"It's better we're ready for worse," said George Briggs, district director of the American Red Cross of Alaska Southeast District.

James Barrett, who owns the Bergmann, said 25 to 30 residents moved out of the hotel while it looked like the fire might threaten it. The heat coming up the hill was intense.

Jackie Barrill, who lives near the Bergmann, said it was a frightening sight when she opened her curtains. When she was evacuated, she didn't know if she was going to be coming back to her home. She grabbed what was most important to her - her kids' pictures, she said.

Carlene Bergquist, district program services manager for the Red Cross, said the community came through with support for the people they believed could be evacuated and the firefighters attacking the blaze. Fred Meyer donated Heritage Coffee. McDonald's restaurant provided 200 breakfast sandwiches and Evergreen Taxi gave people rides.

"The city opened up," Bergquist said.

Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Eric Mohrmann also praised the community for its support. He said when the department went to McDonald's to get breakfast for the crew, the restaurant didn't charge them.

The Red Cross also provided a canteen service for the firefighters at the scene, Berquist said. Thanks to donations, it can provide emergency lodging and vouchers for food and clothes for people left homeless by disasters, she said. All but the three people the agency was putting up at a hotel were able to return home by noon.

Gold Street resident Peter White said he thought he might be homeless Sunday morning. White lives in a ground-floor apartment at the Juneau Gold Street Inn, which Edwards owns. The B-and-B is next to the house that was destroyed, but only a few windows were cracked in the B-and-B.

His neighbor, Walls, knocked on White's window to wake him up when it looked like the fire was spreading to his apartment.

Wearing the clothes he could grab on his way out, along with his wallet and passport, White, an engineer for Coastwise Corp., was prepared for the worst.

"If the damage is extensive, I don't know what I'll do," White said. "Everything I own was in there."

But White's belongings were spare. Walls lost virtually everything and had to borrow a pair of shoes and a shirt on the frigid morning, White said.

"I feel so bad for Tom," he said after taking a sip of coffee provided by the Red Cross.

Walls said he couldn't dress to go back to work at Wells Fargo Bank today.

"It's overwhelming," he said. "Some moments, it's OK. And I think about it and it's not good."

"I was going to hang out with my little brother today," he added.

The neighbor Barrill, who was crying as she spoke late Sunday, said she feels bad for the people in the house and the neighborhood. Although she wasn't a part of the church congregation, she had been there for community meetings.

"A piece is missing from the neighborhood," she said. And near the charred ruins, she felt bad when she saw a woman looking for the family's lost pet.

"I hope they find their cat," Barrill said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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