March 16, 2010 in City

Fire damages converted Sprague Ave. apartments

Building condition called substandard
The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

Richard Henderson wraps himself in a blanket after a fire forced him out of a house on East Sprague Avenue where he was renting Tuesday, March 16, 2010. The house was posted as uninhabitable by the Spokane Fire Department.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Map of this story's location

The Spokane fire marshal this morning ordered closure of a substandard apartment building after a suspicious fire damaged a portion of the crowded and cluttered property.

“It’s a wreck,” said Fire Marshal Lisa Jones as she inspected a series of tiny makeshift apartments in a converted house at 2217 E. Sprague Ave.

Residents said the fire started in a small main-story space that was known to them as “the church,” and was filled with books and furniture, Jones said.

Investigators this morning were sifting through debris to find the point of origin. The area had been locked and secured Monday night, the manager of the property had reported.

Several residents made it out safely when fire erupted about 5:30 a.m.

Richard Henderson, who occupied a rear apartment, said he heard a loud thud that alerted him to trouble. He went outside and checked along an outer wall.

“I looked in this window and saw flames shooting out the back wall,” he said.

He said he ran to Sprague Avenue and flagged down a motorist and passenger who let him use a cell phone to call 911.

“Everybody got out safe,” he said.

Jones said it appeared that three apartments were being occupied by renters, one of whom told her he was paying $250 a month, but as many as seven people may have been living there.

Henderson said his rent was $175.

The property was owned by an entity called the Houston Church of Christ, Inc., which listed a residential address on the 4600 block of North Howard Street, according to county property records.

Inside the building, extension cords were hanging from ceilings. Bathroom fixtures were installed in various locations, including a toilet in a closet. Space heaters and baseboards were used to heat the apartments, and were dangerously close to combustibles. A basement exit window was illegally boarded up.

“This is atrocious,” Jones said. “Nobody should live in these kinds of conditions.”

The exhaust flue for an aging furnace, which residents said was not being used, would have leaked carbon monoxide into the basement.

The building had five mail boxes, but seven electrical meters. Jones was checking to see if the apartments had received a city building permit as required.

An expanded basement on the west side of the house was filled with old belongings, but apparently was used in part as a place to sleep.

Jones said it appeared the building had been used by non-renters.

Henderson said Phillip Paul, an Eastern State Hospital mental patient who gained national notoriety when he escaped during a field trip to the Spokane fair last summer, had stayed there at one time.

A pile of old building materials was stacked along the west side of the building, which Jones called a “kindling pile.” An old school bus parked next to the materials was also filled with items.

The debris triggered a recent complaint against the property, which resulted in a notice of violation from the city building department last week.

The Red Cross disaster assistance team was at the fire scene this morning, helping residents with temporary housing and emergency belongings.

Residents were being allowed into the building to retrieve belongings before it was to be boarded up under the no-occupancy order.

One of the residents, who uses a bicycle to get around, told Jones and other emergency workers, “I’ve been homeless off and on. I’ll be fine.”

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