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Fire guts apartment building

Handy ladders: Civilian workers help people escape

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2007

A fire gutted a four-story downtown apartment building Wednesday, forcing some residents to jump from windows and others to escape down ladders hustled over by remodeling crews who were working nearby.

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One person was treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital for minor injuries. The cause of the fire was unknown and under investigation.

For more than an hour, smoke and wind-whipped flareups hampered rescue crews as they looked for victims left inside. Several pets were reported missing, but all people were finally accounted for.

"All three floors were engulfed. We got reports that people were still in the building so we went from pulling lines to getting people out," said Deputy Fire Marshal Dan Jager, who led the first response at 331 Gastineau Ave., just up the hill from South Franklin Street.

The eight-unit apartment also had a basement on the ground level.

Calls to 911 began coming in just before 10:30 a.m.

"I heard all the noise. We were watching it from my apartment. I was screaming to the people. Three of them jumped out. Ah, it was terrible," said Kathleen Church, resident of a neighboring building, Channel View Apartments.

She said she watched the fire from her windows, which overlook the building.

Joel Mitchell, a plumber, happened to be working in the Channel View Apartments when the fire started. He saw several construction workers bring their ladder and help people escape the top floor.

How to help

• To donate money or to learn about other ways to help, call the American Red Cross at 463-5713.

• Checks can also be sent to or dropped off at 3200 Hospital Drive, Suite 203, Juneau, AK 99801.

• Credit cards are also accepted.

• Red Cross representatives said they were in particular need of long-term, low-cost housing for victims.

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"We were working on the building right down the hill from it," said Sam Thorp, foreman of a Southeast Remodel crew that rushed up the hill.

"(Four) of us and a couple of other roofers ran up the hill with an extension ladder and pulled a couple of people out, a lady and her brother," he said. "It was a hot fire."

Others on the scene from Southeast Remodel were Kevin Walker, Thomas Cunningham and Brandon Dutson. Brett McCurley of Design North and an unidentified colleague also were early civilian responders.

Others nearby joined in as soon as they heard.

"I came up to pull hoses. I work at Office Plus. A couple of us came down to see if there was anything that they needed help with. I just helped them connect one hose," said Brian Blomquist.

While neighbors were helping and firefighters were working on the flames, displaced people huddled a few blocks down Gastineau Avenue.

Some cried as they talked on cell phones. Others, wrapped in blankets, shared their stories.

"We don't know what happened," said Sherri Modest, who was sleeping when the fire started. She had just come home from a night shift at work.

"I heard the fella downstairs. He was crawling up on the snow saying the building was on fire," Modest said. "I had to jump out the window."

She was still wearing pajamas and holding a tan blanket with two white kittens huddled inside. Modest managed to save at least two of the kittens, but was worried that the others didn't make it. The mother cat was also missing.

Ron Simmons, who shares the apartment with Modest, had already left for work when the fire broke out.

Simmons had roughly 100 rounds of ammunition stored in the apartment, including shotgun and .22 rifle cartridges. Several witnesses said they first noticed something was wrong when they heard loud popping sounds.

Josh Reeder and his girlfriend, Audrey Rogers, also had to jump to escape the flames.

"She was getting up and getting ready for an interview. We heard people running around. We were trapped," Reeder said. He and Rogers live on the second floor.

After the couple saw flames beginning to engulf their porch, Reeder jumped first from a window on the south side of the building. He said he then encouraged Rogers to do the same.

Reeder escaped in a pair of shorts, shoes and a shirt. A neighbor across the street gave him a pair of pants.

Brad Holloway was in his apartment with his 19-month-old daughter, Amberle, and his brother, Andrew Bush. His wife was at work.

"We kicked out the back window, and my brother had the baby," Holloway said. He ran around shouting warnings to neighbors. The trio got out, but not without loss.

"All of our money was in there," he said.

Lee Begis, who was away from the neighborhood, rushed home to find everything gone.

"Everything I own, except what I got on," Begis said outside the Red Dog Saloon as he and others watched smoke billow.

Begis had left home in a Vietnam veterans baseball hat, jacket, sweatshirt and XtraTuf boots. He had a pair of yellow rubber gloves stashed in the front waistline of his jeans.

"The only thing I am worried about are all of my photographs and negatives," he said. "It's seven years worth."

At midday, firefighters were still trying to maintain control. Just before noon, they shouted for all personnel to leave the building. A thick cloud of black smoke began streaming out of windows on both the southern and northern sides.

Patterson said he believed that all occupants had been able to get out. He wasn't sure how many people had been inside.

The Assembly Chambers at City Hall were converted into a temporary shelter. Linda Wahl of the Red Cross said the organization was trying to determine what people needed.

Weather was clear and cold, with temperatures in the high 30s. Winds were gusting up to 35 miles per hour downtown, according to the National Weather Service.

Wahl said the Red Cross was giving temporary lodging and basic services to 16 people.

"We give three nights of lodging. We are helping with food, shoes and clothing and seasonal garments, as well as bedding and linen. Once people find a place to rent we can help with rental assistance up to a certain amount," Wahl said.

She estimated that it would cost roughly $20,000 to help to the 10 families affected by the fire.

Patterson said the fire was out by midafternoon.

"The building is going to be tagged for no entry," he said. "Residents will not be able to re-enter the building," he said.

He said fire officials would likely watch the building overnight to make sure the fire does not flare up.

Gastineau Avenue was blocked to traffic. South Franklin Street, which also had been closed, was later reopened to one-way traffic. Downtown drivers had to move slowly.

The building was constructed in 1960, according to the Juneau assessor's office. The owners, Owen and Kami Clark, could not be reached at their home number Wednesday.

"It was a typical older building," Patterson said. "My understanding is that it has been renovated more than once.

"It appears that there may have been some hidden cavities," he said. "The wind was the really big kicker to deal with."

Firefighters "did a wonderful job" keeping the flames away from a next door apartment, he said. Patterson estimated that roughly 40 volunteer and career firefighters were involved.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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