ANCHORAGE — A fast-moving fire gutted an East Anchorage apartment building Monday afternoon, sending residents of the fourplex into the cul-de-sac, fleeing for their lives.
The fire, at 501 San Juan Circle, left the building a smoldering wreck. Residents and witnesses said it went up like paper, fueled by exploding propane tanks and popping ammunition. By 3:30, nothing much was left but ashes, embers and a skeleton hulk, which teary residents viewed with disbelief as they realized they lost everything. Water and fire-fighting foam filled the street.
Anchorage Fire Department spokesman Al Tamagni said no one was injured. As initial crews attacked the flames, they called in a second alarm. The department sent 22 fire trucks, ambulances and other equipment to the scene.
The fire was first reported at 1:34 p.m. Monday.
"It's a total loss -- it's a total loss," said Barbara Linderman, a resident of one of the two downstairs apartments. "Nothing there."
Linderman had gone shopping and left her 8-year-old daughter, La-Myra, and 15-year-old son, Canyan, in the care of her 17-year-old daughter, Destiny.
"My 8-year-old heard people saying, 'Get out! The house is on fire!' " Linderman said. The children escaped safely, she said.
Red Cross officials were on hand to help the families find shelter.
"We don't have a place to stay," Linderman said. The family has no relatives in Anchorage, she said.
The heroics of neighbors and a passer-by, who took action before emergency crews arrived, likely saved lives and prevented injuries as they took charge to alert others to the danger around them. One man, hearing the ammo go off, shooed curious children away from the building.
San Juan Circle is off East Sixth Avenue just east of Boniface Parkway.
Justin Judd, 30, of Eagle River was driving south on Boniface when he looked to his left and saw smoke billowing into the sky. He turned left on East Sixth Avenue and into the San Juan cul-de-sac, expecting to see fire trucks, but all he saw were a few neighbors rushing about.
A woman was kneeling in a driveway, looking at the flames spreading up from her downstairs apartment and crying inconsolably.
"I thought somebody was in the house," said Judd, a counselor at McLaughlin Youth Center with huge tattooed biceps.
"You couldn't talk to her because she was just wailing. I talked to a couple other people that were with her, and I said is she crying because somebody is in the house, or is she crying because of her house. And they said her house. That's when I picked her up and carried her off."
The woman, who Judd thought was in her 50s, came from the ground floor apartment where the fire apparently started. She told Judd she had a gun in the house and ammunition.
"Shortly after she said that, we started hearing pop-pop-pop," Judd said. "You could hear it going off. There was kids running around and I was trying to get them cleared out."
Two police officers showed up, one in uniform, one in plainclothes, Judd said. "The three of us were attempting to get everyone cleared from the area and get them across the street."
Another neighbor said he saw propane tanks in the apartment, and then they blew, Judd said.
David Graham, a shift worker, was fast asleep in his apartment in the adjacent building.
"I woke up to it exploding," Graham said. "My dog was freaking out. I thought it was fireworks, and then the cop was pounding on my door, telling me to get out. I was getting dressed and grabbing the dog. It was exploding while I was running out."
Kaela Emerson, 16, and her friend Kaitlin Alexander, 20, were in the other upstairs apartment with Emerson's family.
"We heard the screaming going on downstairs, we looked out the window, saw flames covering my whole deck, grabbed the baby and ran," said Emerson.
"I saw the reflection of flames so I looked out the window and it was coming up," Alexander said. "We ran through flames and smoke with my daughter on my head down the stairs, and then I had to run back up the stairs to get my kid's car seat."
As they left the building, they alerted the neighbors.
"We knocked on all the doors and then ran," Alexander said
"We knew there were people downstairs," Emerson said. "They would've died if we wouldn't have gotten them out."
But La-Myra wouldn't open the door.
"She's not allowed to answer the door because she's little," Emerson said.
"So I'm sitting there kicking and slamming on the door," said Alexander.
"We scared her so bad she went and told her older brother what was going on," Emerson said.
An hour later and the adrenaline gone, Emerson broke down in tears. Her boyfriend, who lives with her family but works on the North Slope, still didn't know what happened, and that everything was gone.
"Pictures, photos, TVs, couches, money," said Emerson.
Her friend tried to get her to look at the brighter side.
"It's all replaceable," Alexander said. "They came and thanked us for getting people out of there, dude. We're OK, the kids are OK. You're going to be right perfect."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.