Sitka High basketball team likely saved lives in burning building, AFD says

An Anchorage apartment building was heavily damaged by fire Wednesday morning, but all residents evacuated and no injuries were reported, thanks to members of the Sitka High School basketball team, who alerted the tenants and helped them escape, fire officials said.

Anchorage Fire Department spokeswoman Cleo Hill said 20 units responded to the fire, at 3608 Taft St. in Spenard. Around 10:47 a.m., callers reported fire coming from the second floor and spreading to the third, according to an AFD statement on the fire.

Twenty-five people were displaced by the fire, AFD said. Spokesman John See estimated that 40 percent of the building was damaged but said the left-side units might be salvageable due to a firewall between the building's halves required by city code.

Fire inspector Brian Balega could not determine the cause of the fire, AFD reported Wednesday evening. An initial eyewitness report pointed to improperly discarded smoking material, but an investigation did not conclusively verify that.

"The bottom two units were unoccupied -- one of the bottom two tenants just moved out last weekend," See said. "The upper four are three-bedroom units."

Sia Milo, one of the building's residents, said the fire was well under way when people in the building first told her to leave.

"We heard someone tell us to come out and it was already on fire; I already smelled it," Milo said.


Mohammed Adad, another resident, said he and his family could see flames outside the windows as they ran down the stairs. He said none of the building's smoke alarms were triggered by the initial flames.

"Nothing," Adad said. "Somebody came from outside, said, 'Get out, everybody, get out, everybody -- fire, fire!' "

Coach Andy Lee said he was driving the group to breakfast shortly before 11 a.m. He was stopped at a Spenard Road stoplight when player Tevin Bayne spotted smoke coming from the apartment building.

"Is that a fire?" Bayne asked coach Lee, who then headed toward the fire to help. No one was exiting the building, but cars and bicycles were scattered around it, Lee said.

Lee told the players to go around the building and bang on the windows to alert anyone inside; he went inside and started pounding on doors as Bayne shouted from the entrance. Smoke was accumulating quickly, so Bayne’s voice helped Lee find his way back outside as he escorted bewildered groups of two to three people away from the fire at a time, he said.

Ten people had escaped the blaze when a woman said her child was still inside, Lee said. At that moment, a young teen girl came running through the smoke out the front door.

“She was saved by the fact that the boys kept beating on the windows,” Lee said.

Firefighters arrived and the basketball team “let the professionals take over” and headed to breakfast, Lee said.

See, the AFD spokesman, said the lack of alarms was due to the fire’s likely origin outside the building.

“We believe it started on the deck, the upstairs right one,” See said. “Because it was an external fire, there was no fire alarm sounding -- until you have a window break from the heat, nothing sounds inside.”

Wednesday’s weather -- with northeast winds up to 10 mph, according to the National Weather Service -- significantly increased the potential danger of the fire, leading to the call for additional units. The blaze was brought under control about 45 minutes after the initial call.

“One of the factors in the second alarm was the wind,” See said. “They could see the fire reaching the roof, and when it got there it gave them concerns about controlling it.”

See noted that crews arrived almost immediately because the blaze occurred just a block from Fire Station 5 on McRae Road, readily visible from outside the damaged building.

Delene Bartel, the building owner’s mother, said she was alerted to the fire by a neighbor who lived near the building. She didn’t have immediate word on whether the building, estimated at $540,000 in overall value, would be repaired.

“I want everyone to be OK and have a place to stay -- that's my concern,” Bartel said.

Milo said she’s concerned about the fate of her home, but the important part is that she, her husband, their children and grandchildren are all safe.

“We will figure it out,” Milo said. “It's sticking-together time.”

The Sitka basketball team returned to the building after breakfast. An elderly tenant thanked the group for saving his life, Lee said.

The Red Cross is helping the displaced residents.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that members of the basketball team ran into the burning building. While coach Andrew Lee went inside, the players alerted tenants from the outside by banging on windows.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.