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Fire officials search burned apartment for clues

Residents of a damaged apartment house in northeast Spokane stared at the charred remains this morning trying to figure out how to put their lives back together.

Fifty-four residents of Houston House Apartments, 607 E. Houston Ave., were left homeless following the Sunday afternoon fire, according to Red Cross in Spokane.

One woman said she was at work wearing a Halloween witch costume when the apartment manager called to tell her the building was aflame.

“I started bawling,” said Victoria Teal, 20.

All of the residents who were at home when the 3:30 p.m. fire started managed to escape the three-story building safely. None of the 46 firefighters on the three-alarm scene were injured.

There was an unconfirmed reported of a resident of the area suffering from smoke inhalation, said Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

The cause of the fire was under investigation today, and the apartment building was being cordoned off until the investigation is completed, said investigating Lt. Jimmy Bowen.

Bowen said he was working to eliminate potential causes, including the possibility of a faulty baseboard heater along a wall in the bedroom of a second-story unit where the fire started.

“I’ve got several potential ignition sources,” he said.

Residents of that unit were not home when the fire broke out.

Tenant Theresa Bentz looked dazed as she surveyed the damage. She said she was dressed in a witch costume and preparing for an evening of Halloween trick-or-treating with her daughter and grand children when the fire broke out.

“I managed to grab a couple of pictures,” she said as she stood in the cold wearing what appeared to be slippers. “We’re alive.”

She said she was going to have to obtain clothing quickly since she was scheduled to start a new job on Tuesday.

“It’s a horrible deal,” Bentz said, describing the apartment complex as a place where “lots of families” were living.

The Spokane chapter of the American Red Cross reported that five residents spent Sunday night in a makeshift shelter at Spokane Friends Church, 1612 W. Dalke Ave.

Other residents stayed with friends or family members.

“The shelter will remain open until every resident of the apartment complex has been contacted and the Red Cross confirms that they have a permanent residence to move into,” Megan Snow, director of communications for Red Cross, said in an e-mail update on Monday.

“There are many residents that the Red Cross has not connected with yet and there is a strong possibility that more will come to the shelter over the next few days.”

Red Cross had reported that the apartments held 85 residents, but corrected the number to 54 this afternoon. The higher number came from including residents in adjacent buildings that were not burned. All 30 of the units in the damaged complex were being rented.

Tenants said the apartment house manager was offering to refund deposit money to residents to help them gain some quick cash, and was making calls to other apartment buildings to find spaces for her tenants.

Red Cross was helping residents replace food, clothing, medical items and household goods. The agency was recommending that residents go to Goodwill or Salvation Army for assistance.

The Northwest Christian School Thrift Store a 6607 N. Maple St. was offering half-priced clothing items for fire victims through this week, an employee there said.

Residents were given a few minutes late on Sunday to retrieve belongings from some of their apartments, but were not going to be allowed to return until the investigation is finished, possibly on Tuesday.

A fire restoration company was on the scene Monday morning making preparations for rebuilding the apartment units.

A postal carrier for the area said that residents’ mail would be held at the Northpointe postal branch at 9857 N. Nevada St. Mail can be retrieved by showing identification, the carrier said.

Flames burned from the second-floor bedroom where the fire started into adjacent apartments, and badly gutted third-floor units, consuming a large section of roof.

Many of the renters were reportedly uninsured.

Teal said that she had a renter insurance policy that was attached to her automobile insurance policy and that the cost was affordable.

Her insurance carrier moved her temporarily into a motel suite that she said was larger than her apartment, and a family friend gave her $300 to help replace lost items.

Her employer at a fast-food restaurant gave her the day off so she could deal with the emergency.

“It was my first place,” Teal said as she looked at the building. “I’ve been here four months.”

She said she had jewelry, clothing, furniture, photos and a new pair of dance shoes in the damaged apartment.

Dana Burns stopped by the scene to find out when her daughter, a tenant, could get inside and retrieve belongings, including a dresser that her Burns’ grandfather had given her when she was born.

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