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Body found after downtown apartment fire

Thu., Dec. 23, 2010

Evening blaze displaces tenants

Cold, wet and hungry, Eileen Epps stood in the snow Wednesday night wondering where she would have dinner.

She had planned on making a trip to the grocery store; instead she made a trip out her window and down a fire ladder.

Firefighters rescued Epps after responding to a blaze at her downtown Spokane apartment building at 123 N. Bernard St. about 5 p.m. After crews evacuated Epps and her neighbors, they discovered the body of one of the building’s residents.

Before being rescued, Epps tried to flee through the front door, but when she opened it, all she saw was smoke.

“Thick, black smoke,” she said. “Pitch black. I thought the whole building was on fire.”

Epps said she knew there was no way she would make it to the elevator or stairwell.

“The smoke was so thick I couldn’t get out the front door,” she said. “I couldn’t see.”

So she screamed out the window for firefighters to rescue her, and despite her fear of heights, made her way down the ladder.

“That was my only way out,” she said. “I had to make it down that ladder.”

Crews investigating the fire found the body of a resident in his apartment, located on the third floor where the blaze began. It was not known Wednesday if he died as a result of the fire. His could be the fourth fire-related death in Spokane County in less than a week.

Neighbors said the fire started in the dead man’s apartment, but fire officials would not confirm that.

The man had accidentally activated his MedicAlert alarm about an hour before the fire, said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams. Emergency personnel responded and evaluated him. He was fine when they left, Williams said.

Two people were hospitalized with smoke inhalation and several others were rescued from the building, he said.

Nearly 50 Spokane firefighters responded to the blaze at the four-story Sherwood Apartments building, which houses the Suki Yaki Inn on the ground floor.

All of the building’s 33 units were occupied. The American Red Cross opened a shelter Wednesday night for displaced tenants in the gymnasium of North Central High School, 1600 N. Howard St. As of 10 p.m., 22 residents had taken shelter there.

Carl Heerwagen and his cat, Ralph-Cat, also were rescued, from the third floor. When Heerwagen opened his own door to a smoke-filled hallway, he immediately put his cat in a crate and went to the window.

His only thought: “Somebody get me out of here.”

“We just waited till they rescued us,” he said.

When fire crews arrived on the scene they saw black smoke and flames coming from the middle of the building on the third floor, Williams said. The fire was quickly extinguished, but crews remained on the scene for hours, mopping up and investigating the cause.

A Spokane Transit Authority bus was called to the scene to give displaced residents a place to stay warm. Itwas unknown when they will be able to return to their homes.

“I pray this works out,” Epps said. “This is one of the worst things that could happen three days before Christmas.”

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