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Fatal Curlew fire leaves only questions

CURLEW, Wash. – The rubble still smoldered more than week after a devastating fire destroyed an apartment building here, killing a grandmother and two toddlers and leaving the children’s mother fighting for her life in a Seattle hospital.

On Tuesday crews began demolishing what’s left of the two-story brick building known as the Old Curlew School in the remote town 15 miles south of the Canadian border.

While the investigation is over, many questions surrounding the fatal blaze remain.

The cause of the fire has been determined as accidental, officials said. The building’s owners, Joe Abraham and his wife, Ferry County Superior Court Judge Rebecca Baker, said investigators pinpointed the cause of the blaze to stovetop burners that had been left on.

“It has been very traumatic for everybody in our community,” Baker said Saturday. “We have tenants who literally had to escape with the clothes, the pajamas, on their back and stand in the rain in the parking lot and watch their homes burn.”

One resident burned out by the fire, who declined to give his name, stood last week in front of the charred remains of his home holding a plastic Wal-Mart sack full of his only possessions.

“There’s nothing left,” he said. “This is all I have.”

On the ground nearby lay a shrine of teddy bears, candy and candles left for the two children, Gail and Helen Ryken, who are presumed to have died in the blaze.

Kelly Brown, the children’s grandmother, is also believed to have died in the fire. Amanda Brown Ryken, mother of the two children, has been in a medically induced coma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle since the fire, with burns to 60 percent of her body, family members said. The four lived in the apartment together.

According to Ferry County Sheriff Pete Warner, the fire burned so hot and caused “such devastation,” an exact cause was difficult to determine.

Because of limited resources and the remote location, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called in to assist local fire crews, Warner said.

Baker said investigators told her and her husband the fire originated in Brown’s apartment, where they found a broiler pan and melted Teflon pan on a stovetop. The oven was melted shut.

A neighbor heard smoke alarms, opened the door to Brown’s unit and saw “kitchen cabinets fully engulfed” in flames, Baker said. It was too late to save the two children and their grandmother, sleeping in a bedroom.

For the 30 or more residents who escaped and were left homeless by the fire, most have found housing, Baker said. But some are still looking, a process made difficult by the high level of poverty in Ferry County.

“Housing, especially rental housing, is hard to come by,” Baker said.

Baker said she and her husband are one of only three property owners who provide state-funded, subsidized housing for the poor in Ferry County, where unemployment is well above the state average, at almost 14 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 more than 20 percent of Ferry County’s residents lived below the federal poverty level.

Despite hard economic times, the outpouring of support for the victims of the fire has been tremendous, residents said.

Joyce Longfellow, longtime resident and owner of the Curlew Store, said donations for fire victims have been coming in from around the state, and even Canada. At the town’s Civic Hall, clothing items donated by the community are stacked so high, they had to ask people to stop bringing items in. What they need now are furniture and other household goods, she said.

“A lot of these people are on foot, and they don’t have families they can stay with,” Longfellow said. “They’ve lost everything.”

Abraham and Baker paid for motel accommodations for burned-out residents for seven days, and the American Red Cross provided additional assistance.

While most of the recovery has been positive, there has also been anger from disgruntled former and current residents, who have speculated about the condition of the building and possible code violations they believe contributed to the blaze.

Rumors of a faulty heating system and inadequate fire suppression alarms have been spread in public forums.

Baker said the building was inspected in November by the state housing authority, and the apartments were found to have adequate heating. It was heated with a wood-fired boiler, which was manned by one of the tenants. The building passed a full state inspection two years ago, she said.

The building had other problems and was not unfamiliar to law enforcement, Curlew residents said. Last year, there was a stabbing, and there have been shootings and other drug-related crimes in the past.

Longfellow said her husband worked as an EMT and was told to wait for police before entering the building on medical calls.

John Ryken, father of the two children presumed dead, blames the building’s owners for the fire, stating that the apartment “was a walking death trap,”

“It should have been condemned,” said Ryken, who said he once performed maintenance at the apartment complex.

Ryken, who was separated from the children’s mother, said he’s considering filing a wrongful death suit against Abraham and Baker.

According to officials, Child Protective Services had been in the Brown apartment the night before the fire after complaints of squalid living conditions.

Ryken said he was attempting to have the children, ages 2 and 3, removed from the apartment and was aware of the complaints.

“It was a disaster. It was filthy,” Ryken said. “That’s the guilt that I have to live with; I had an opportunity to save my children. I have to live with this every day.”

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