A fire in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Spokane left one man with serious injuries and forced dozens of elderly and disabled residents to shelter in place.
The fire started in a ninth-floor apartment and brought more than 70 firefighters to the Park Tower apartments at 217 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. at around 1 p.m. Thursday, said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.
Carol Hart heard the small fire alarm inside the apartment adjacent to her unit go off. She stuck her head out in the hallway and saw that it was filled with smoke.
“I pounded on all my neighbors’ doors and said to go and go now,” Hart said. “Nobody responded and I said, ‘Hey, I’m going. That’s all I can do for ya, get out of here.’”
Hart rushed back to her apartment to grab her tiny white dog, Cowboy, before heading down the nine flights of stairs to evacuate the building.
The tower is a 20-story concrete building across the street from the Spokane Convention Center. It has 185 units for residents over 62 or those who have disabilities. The building is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development .
Crews rushed up the nine flights of stairs caring heavy hose line to get to the resident trapped in his burning apartment.
Firefighters rescued the man by bringing him out of his window, then down to the ground in a ladder truck basket for transport to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Schaeffer said.
He was awake but had significant injuries, Schaeffer said.
Firefighters crawled on their hands and knees, searching the adjacent apartments, he said. The only victim injured as a direct result of the fire was the resident of the initial apartment.
People on the floors above the fire were getting a large amount of smoke, complicating their pre-existing conditions, Schaeffer said. Some of those residents are being treated for smoke inhalation, distress and anxiety.
The Spokane County disaster plan was initiated to sort patients to area hospitals and prevent overloading any one emergency room, Schaeffer said. Ultimately, only three residents were transported for additional care.
Other occupants were assisted by firefighters, the department said.
Residents who were unable to evacuate on their own were asked to shelter in place. Firefighters will be working at the apartment tower until all units on every floor are checked to ensure residents are safe. The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Eighth-floor resident Ken Slack said he heard the fire alarm go off and thought it was a drill, until he saw smoke in the hallway.
He rushed back to his apartment and corralled his cats Claudia and Turtle into their carriers before clambering down the stairs to safety.
Tim Ruckhaber, who said he is “totally blind,” has lived in the tower for more than a decade and was able to evacuate.
“I was completely calm and I took the stairs,” he said.
Living in the building for such a long time, Ruckhaber was able to navigate the stairs himself until reaching the ground floor, where an aide helped him outside.
“I am blessed,” he said of evacuating safely.
Employees from nearby Main Market rushed drinking water to the scene to aid displaced residents, who gathered in a nearby parking lot.
Hart said she has raised concerns with the building’s management company for months about residents smoking inside.
“That’s probably where the fire came from,” she said.
Residents, some on oxygen, have refused to stop smoking, making the building unsafe, Hart said.
“I don’t feel safe up there at all, and neither does Cowboy,” Hart said as she stroked her little dog.
The fire department spends quite a bit of time at the tower tending to residents’ medical needs, Schaeffer said.
“We love the people that live here,” he said.
Schaeffer is concerned the large building doesn’t have sprinklers, leaving the building and its residents vulnerable. The apartments heat up like an oven during a fire, increasing harm to residents, he added.
It’s difficult for firefighters to access the upper floors of the building in a fire, purely due to the number of stairs crews must climb while carrying hoses, breathing apparatuses and other gear.
“This is a high-rise building that is not protected with a fire suppression system,” Schaeffer said. “The consequences are very predictable.”
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