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Blaze destroys 23 apartments

All residents flee unharmed; fire’s cause under investigation

Quinton Baker was asleep in his bottom-floor apartment early Wednesday when he heard pounding. It was his upstairs neighbor, frantically trying to alert him to a blaze that was threatening to engulf the building.

“By the time I turned around there were flames coming in the sliding door,” Baker said. He doesn’t believe he would have made it out in time were it not for his neighbor, Michael Gonzalez, 33.

“Thank God for this guy,” said Baker, 29. “He’s an angel right now.”

Baker and Gonzalez are among dozens of residents displaced by the three-alarm fire, which started about 7:40 a.m. at the complex at North Division Street and East Magnesium Road.

“I’ve never seen fire move so fast,” Baker said. Neighbors said they’d heard the blaze may have been started by a cigarette discarded onto a pile of cedar wood, but Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said it’s still under investigation.

The blaze destroyed 23 units at the Peter Square Apartments, 22 of which were occupied. All residents escaped unharmed, but at least one cat died.

Many residents said they had no insurance.

“After this, I will always have renter’s insurance,” Gonzalez said.

Fire crews arrived to find large amounts of smoke and flames coming from the building near the roof.

“When the companies got here, the building was well involved with fire,” said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams.

Crews abandoned the building and turned their attention to protecting an adjacent structure and pouring water on the burning building from the outside, the chief said.

“The fire had too much of a head start,” Williams said.

After crews arrived and realized how big the fire was, commanders called out a second alarm and then upgraded it to a third.

The Fire Department sought help from adjacent fire districts.

Gonzalez scorched part of his hair when he ran back into his apartment to save a computer. His girlfriend, Debra Whitacre, 24, grabbed the couple’s hard drive as she left with their 2-year-old son. The device contains family photos, including their son’s baby pictures.

“It’s funny you think to grab that stuff before you grab your wallet, your keys,” Whitacre said. “All I cared about were those photos.”

Resident Alfonso Ramirez, 19, said he awoke to the sound of shattering glass, saw flames out the window and fled.

“I didn’t have time to grab anything,” said Ramirez, who has lived at the complex with his girlfriend for three or four months.

Firefighters rescued Megan Mann’s two cats, Kurt and Maximus, from her water- and smoke-damaged apartment. Maximus was drenched from what Mann believes was water used to fight the blaze, but both felines were uninjured.

Resident Jeffrey Black had accounted for two of three cats but considered himself fortunate.

“There are a lot of people a lot worse off than me,” he said.

Akway Omot and his five children lost their home in the fire, and he didn’t immediately know what they were going to do. The Red Cross is assisting him, but Omot, a U.S. citizen who moved from Sudan 18 years ago, said he lost all his belongings.

“I didn’t even get my wallet,” he said.

Baker had been planning on moving and his belongings, including his birth certificate and Social Security card, were in boxes in the living room. Fire officials told him nothing is salvageable. He’ll stay with family until he decides what to do next.

“It’s like you almost have to re-create yourself,” he said.

Staff writer Mike Prager contributed to this report.