When fire alarms sounded in the Copeland Avenue apartments last Wednesday, Darlene Pye knew she had no time to waste.
“I got out with a coat and my purse,” she says. “Everything else went.”
The next day, as Pye shopped for new clothes, her friend Laurie Dumont came along to help.
“It’s just things that you lost,” said Dumont, who lost all her own things in a trailer fire several years ago.
“You can get things back, I told her. We can’t get Darlene back.”
Burning for nearly 12 straight hours, Houston Fire Chief Jim Daigneault says the fire that tore through the tar roof of the three-storey apartment building at Copeland and 11th Street on Wednesday week ranks among largest structural fires Houston has seen. Twenty one people lost their homes.
But everyone got out safely thanks to Chris Bailey, who was staying in one of the building’s 15 apartments, and an off-duty police officer who ran into the burning apartment to bang on doors.
Bailey says it all started when his third-floor neighbour knocked on his door and asked for help after falling asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette.
“When I went in, his whole couch was on fire,” Bailey said. “I went with buckets of water, to try and douse it out at first, but it was too far gone. The roof was starting to catch on fire.”
At that point, Bailey said the third-floor smoke alarm sounded.
That’s when Bailey and the RCMP officer started running down the apartment hallways banging on doors and warning residents to flee the building.
“He pretty well kicked on every door until every human got out alive,” said Rick Irvine, who was looking after his daughter’s apartment when the fire started.
“Some of the pets were lost,” he added. “I had four two-week old kittens and their momma kitty of four years.”
Irvine praised fire, ambulance and District of Houston crews for responding so quickly and in such big numbers on Wednesday.
A provincial government program run by the District saw fire victims through their first 72 hours of hotel bills, meals and clothing costs.
But tenants say just one of the 15 Copeland Avenue apartments had renter’s insurance.
At Houston Community Services, relief organizer Myrna Arnold said HCS, the Salvation Army and local churches are all coordinating longer-term help.
“We need everything,” she said. “Beds, right now, are probably the biggest need.”
By Friday, donations of furniture and clothes were already piling up in a spare room set aside for storage at the Houston Mall.
Rick Apperson of the Salvation Army said the goods would start going out to victims early this week. People have been very generous, he said, adding that they could still use kitchen supplies.
Speaking from his home in Vancouver last Friday, building owner Keith Stark said it’s too soon to say what will happen next for the burned-out apartments.
“I haven’t even got my mind around that yet,” he said. “I’m shocked.”
Stark said he and building manager Goldie Smitlener returned all the tenants’ security deposits last week and are making calls out to other building owners to find replacement apartments and furniture.
As of last Friday, several residents said they had already found new apartments, either in other buildings downtown or up the hill on Mountain View Drive.
“The response by community, from what I’ve seen from down here, almost puts Vancouver to shame,” Stark added.
“I think it’s been phenomenal.”
Firefighters battle pair of major fires in less than two weeks
Standing in the fire hall just half a block away from the burned-out Copeland apartments, Houston Fire Chief Jim Daigneault said the fact the building is still standing shows how well his crew did on Wednesday.
Twenty two volun-teer firefighters working on all three Houston fire engines battled the fire from 8:20 p.m. Wednesday until just after sunrise. The last crew was still dousing hot spots until 10:11 a.m. Thursday.
Daigneault said after starting in the third-floor, the fire mostly burned in the building’s tar roof.
At one point, firefighters hauled two hoses on top of the single-storey strip mall behind the apartments to get a wider angle for spraying fire-retarding foam over the burning tar.
“It helped a little bit, but not enough to count,” Daigneault said.
“With these types of roofs, it just takes lots of water.”
Power lines proved a big challenge to firefighters on Wednesday.
At about 9:30 p.m., the rush of water from their fire hoses caused to BC Hydro power lines to touch and short-circuit, blowing out fuses with a loud bang and flash of white light that surprised the crowd of onlookers below.
For safety, BC Hydro cut power to 55 customers around the building.
After working for 16 straight hours Wednesday, crews returned the next day to replace burned out power lines and get all the power restored.
Daigneault said that after fighting the apartment fire and a townhouse fire on Park Lane less than two weeks ago, his crew has had a lot of experience.
“It takes the cobwebs out,” he said. “You start to do scene accountability better, because you’re doing it real life, in real time.”
Houston RCMP ruled both fires accidental.
“People have to be observant about what they’re doing,” Daigneault said.
“If you’re smoking, pay attention to where your cigarettes are. If you’re cooking on the stove, pay attention to what’s cooking. Just don’t walk away.”
For his part, resident Rick Irvine says he’s just happy that everyone got out unhurt.
“Things are going to be okay,” he said.
“I’m going to go to church on Sunday, let me tell you that.”