NEWS HEADLINES

Fire destroys apartments

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Amanda Strine stood outside the Eighter from Decatur apartment building Tuesday morning as a light rain began falling from gray skies.

Around her feet were the blackened remains of furniture and other household items dragged out of her neighbor’s burned-out apartment.

Her apartment barely missed looking the same way, but that was little comfort.

“Everything in there is totally lost,” she said, looking through a door into her 8-year-old son’s bedroom. “Clothes, toys, beds, everything is lost.”

AFTERMATH – An empty fire extinguisher sits on the lawn outside the Eighter from Decatur apartments. Fire ravaged one of the buildings at the complex Sunday night, leaving three units gutted, one with heavy damage and three others with heavy smoke damage, according to Decatur Fire Chief Mike Richardson. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

About 36 hours earlier, a fire had broken out just two apartments down from where she lived with her two children. She and her son, Ian, were at Wal-Mart when she received the call about the complex catching fire around 9 p.m. Sunday. Her first thought was for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter, who was at the apartment.

It turned out Cassidy was outside an apartment across the parking lot when she saw what at first looked like a red light inside one of the units. She saw something fall and then noticed the smoke.

Cassidy and a friend started banging on doors, alerting residents about the fire.

Strine said she was amazed at how quickly the Decatur Fire Department, and later the Bridgeport Fire Department, responded and was able to knock down the flames, even though those flames had already begun to spread to her apartment.

“The fire was jumping over into my son’s bedroom,” she said. ” … I just watched a firefighter kick open the door and start spraying in there.”

She worries about how her son will be able to cope with the loss and recovery as the family attempts to get back into a routine.

“He’s autistic and ADHD. This is not what he needed,” Strine said. ” … I’ve already talked to his counselors, and they said, ‘We’ll have outbursts from the poor kid, because his comfort zone was taken from him.’ It’s pretty sad when your kid goes back to school the first day (after winter break) and the first thing he says is, ‘Our apartments caught on fire. We lost everything.’”

She quickly pointed out to her son that it wasn’t accurate.

“I didn’t lose you. We didn’t lose Sissy. I still have you guys. I can replace your clothes. I can replace your toys. But momma cannot replace you,” she replied.

Even their pet hamster, Chubby, was saved. Strine said a firefighter brought the pet to them. At first, her daughter didn’t know if Chubby was still alive.

“I guess one of the EMS guys was still here, so he took out his stethoscope and was chuckling and said, ‘Yeah, I think he’s good.’ That made her laugh a little bit,” Strine said.

Strine and her children were among three families the American Red Cross of Wise County helped with temporary lodging at a local hotel. Strine said her roots are in Pennsylvania, meaning no family lives close by.

In total, seven families were displaced due to the fire.

She doesn’t know what the future holds, but Strine said she does want to stay in the area. Her kids love their schools, she said.

PICKING UP THE PIECES – Amanda Strine stands outside of her apartment Tuesday morning as she returned to see what she could salvage. Her apartment was among those damaged by Sunday’s fire. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

ASSESSING THE DAMAGE

The apartments, located in the 1200 block of U.S. Business 81/287, were built in the 1940s, owner Bill Scober said. A fire at the complex nearly four years ago took out another building on the east side. Since that time, Scober said he hasn’t been able to insure the other buildings.

He said it is unlikely the units lost will be rebuilt.

“I’m sure we’ll have to tear it down,” he said. “Just to get it up to code, it will have to be torn down and start over. It’s a total loss.”

As for the residents in the remaining buildings, Scober said they’ll be able to remain where they are, at least for now.

Decatur Fire Marshal Deroy Bennett said Monday that he had looked through the debris and had taken 17 statements to search for clues as to how the fire might have started. It could be weeks before a cause is determined.

“It’s not suspicious at this time,” he said.

Bennett said they had found “lots of safety issues” at the apartment complex.

“As we continue to have fires that jeopardize lives, the tougher we are going to get on it,” he said.

Strine said she’s upset that the apartments didn’t have more safety precautions in place, pointing out that fire extinguishers on the walls outside the apartments were all empty.

“If we were asleep, who knows? We could have died very easily,” she said.

Two residents were also arrested for disorderly conduct Sunday night after the fire. Bennett said the two had been shouting at each other and had been told to stop several times by officers before they were taken to jail.

HELP FOR THE VICTIMS

Crossroads Church in Decatur has a regular outreach ministry at the apartments and is helping residents who have been displaced as well as those who are still living at the apartments. Elaine Huff, who is in charge of the outreach ministry at the church, said the residents who lost clothes were able to get what they needed from the Decatur Church of Christ’s Helping Hands Clothing Room.

The biggest need now is finding both temporary and affordable long-term housing.

The church is also trying to help residents in units that were not touched by flames or smoke but still were affected by the fire. Gas service was cut off, meaning those remaining at the apartments lost their primary source of heat, including ways to cook food or use hot water for baths or showers. Huff said the church has bought electric heaters for those residents.

While the church is trying to fill the physical and spiritual needs of those affected by the fire, emotional needs are also a priority.

“The residents here are a tight-knit community,” Huff said. “They are not just losing a home. They’re losing a family, because they are like family.”

The church is also cooking meals several days over the next week and offering transportation to their church in order for the residents to continue that sense of community.

If you would like to donate to help the apartment residents, Crossroads has a way to give online through their website. Go to crossroadspeople.com/give. After registering, you may make a donation specifically for the fire victims. Donations may also be made at the church, located at 1400 Deer Park Rd. next to Rann Elementary.

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