Anchorage — The entryway of the burned apartment building on Eureka Street gaped open, its walls torched and gutted. Former residents trailed in and out last Wednesday afternoon, carrying boxes and trash bags.
Stephanie Nevarez, 25, lived in apartment No. 13. She and I put on booties and masks and signed a permission slip saying we knew the inside of the building wasn't safe. We tracked up through the burnt-out lobby, took a right down a hallway and climbed a flight of stairs. The second floor hallway was a dark tunnel, with a charred, uneven floor. One of the men from the company managing the building clean-up unlocked her door. I could see his breath in the cold air by the light of my iPhone.
Nevarez's apartment was kind of the way she left it as it filled with smoke on the morning of Jan. 3, she said, except the paint on the wall was streaked with soot and sagging from water damage. A 4-foot-diameter blister in the ceiling, full of water firefighters sprayed on an upstairs apartment, hung perilously over her living area. Most of what we were looking at wasn't salvageable. The TV, the couch, the bed, even a soaked novel lying open on the counter, would stay there and become garbage.
The apartment complex is severely damaged and may be a total loss. One of the residents, 41-year-old Jenae Collins, has been charged with setting the fire. The people who lived there, as many as 40 of them, are left to start over, to look for new places to live, to get by without most of the possessions. The Red Cross has helped them with clothes and other necessities, but the search for a new apartment isn't easy.
Thirteen of the displaced households are actively looking for new places, according to Mary Rae Staples, preparedness specialist with Red Cross of Alaska. Another fire, in a large apartment complex in Government Hill on Thursday, has inundated the agency people in need of shelter.
Nevarez is among those still looking. The segment of the rental market she's searching in -- small lower-cost units, efficiency and one-bedroom units, sometimes called "workforce housing" -- is in particular short supply in Anchorage. She doesn't have any solid leads.
"Right now I just have a friend whose like spare bedroom I'm using," she said.
Nevarez, who works at the novelty store Really Neat Stuff, had been home about a week after going Outside to collect her mother's ashes. Her mom's death wasn't exactly expected.
The box of ashes survived the fire, she said, though it was soaked through. Of everything, she's glad that survived, she said.
Later Wednesday afternoon, I met Constantino Lopez, 19, at Barnes & Noble, where he usually goes to study after a day at West High. He lived with his two older brothers and a friend in apartment No. 17. They lost everything inside. All he took with him when he left the apartment was a pair of pants, a shirt, a sweater, and some Converse sneakers, he said. They'd bought some new clothes with a prepaid credit card from the Red Cross, he said. But everything he had could fit in a backpack.
This isn't the first time the teenager has had to start over. Lopez and his brothers, Olegario, 21, and Priciliano, 23, fled their village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca three years ago, he said. Their parents were afraid they would be harmed in the political unrest there. The Lopez brothers are Triqui, a persecuted indigenous minority. A judge agreed they faced danger in their home country and the brothers were granted asylum in the U.S. Jennifer Witaschek, a legal assistant from the firm Ashburn & Mason, which represented them in the asylum hearings, met us at Barnes & Noble helped me talk with him in Spanish.
Lopez and his brothers are living at a Salvation Army shelter, he said. They can stay there for about one more week. It took a day or so after the fire for the reality of the situation to hit them, he said.
"The three of them got together, sat down and talked about, 'okay we have nothing, where do we go from here,' " Witaschek said, translating his answer to my question.
They first priority: Find a place to live. After that, Constantino and Olegario need jobs, he said. An online fundraising effort has been started on their behalf.
I told Lopez he'd been through a lot for someone so young. I asked him how he thought all of it changed him. He thought about it and then told me he didn't know how to answer that question.
Thursday I talked to Melford Coke, a Jamaican-born assisted-living worker, who was taking a client to the airport to watch airplanes take off when he passed his neighborhood and saw his apartment was on fire. He lived in apartment No. 7.
He found a temporary furnished apartment in Spenard, he said, but is looking for another place. Wednesday he made the trip back to his apartment to see what as left.
"I couldn't get no furniture at all, no food stuff," he said. "Paperworks and stuff get wet, a lot of water came down."
He rescued some clothes, he said.
"I try to wash them, but the smell is still bad," he said. "I'm skeptical of wearing them."
The worst thing he saw was an elderly neighbor, also out of a place to live, sifting through his possessions.
"It brought tears to my eyes," he said.
Coke bought some thrift store clothes with his Red Cross funds. People from his office at Hope Community Resources helped him as well. He's thought about how he saw Collins, the woman accused of burning down the building, early the morning of the fire. Nothing seemed amiss, he said.
"I'm still shocked right now, believe it or not," he said.