Anchorage police officer Kevin Armstrong could see a glow from a burning apartment building at 34th Avenue and Eureka Street for blocks before the building came into view Thursday morning.
When he finally got to it, a tower of flames churned stories high above the roof. He hadn't seen a fire so big in 16 years as a cop. The fire department wasn't there yet. People were inside. At least one had called 911, saying he was trapped.
Armstrong and two other officers who happened to be close by, Doyle Dodie Warren and Kemberly Semeniuk, parked their cruisers and ran inside, he said. Fire alarms rang. Smoke filled the corridors.
It was just before 9 a.m. as the fire tore though the three-story apartment building, sending two people to the hospital. As many as 45 people were displaced, authorities said. It took nearly two hours to bring the fire under control, according to Anchorage Fire Department spokesman Al Tamagni. Two vehicles also burned. At least three cats perished.
The cause of the fire was undetermined Thursday, Tamagni said. An investigation continues.
The police officers were among the first to arrive as commuters and office dwellers watched the smoke climb from across the city.
"We started working on the first and second floors, kicking on doors," Armstrong said. "We couldn't make it up to the third floor because the smoke was so bad."
Within minutes, the smoke drove them all out of the 24-unit building, he said.
'NOTHING BUT FLAMES'
By then, the Fire Department had arrived. Residents, many in pajamas, huddled in the parking lot of the nearby Holiday gas station.
The building sits in a densely populated Midtown neighborhood packed with older apartments. Firefighters evacuated residents of adjacent apartment buildings as a precaution, Tamagni said. Traffic on 36th Avenue was diverted.
More than two dozen people, some wrapped in blankets or comforting their dogs, took shelter down the street at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Staff from the nearby Wal-Mart arrived shortly after the blaze with donated blankets and other supplies. Many residents worried that they had lost all their belongings.
Ginny Ihde, who was smoking outside the church, said her third-floor apartment was a total loss. Ihde said she heard screaming after 8 a.m. and grabbed a jacket, her phone, car keys and $5.
"I looked out my balcony and all I could see was black smoke. I thought, 'This place is on fire; I need to get out of here.' "
A police officer in the stairwell told Ihde to come out, she said. Ihde walked alongside the building to the front.
"I walked around the whole building and when I looked up at my apartment, it was nothing but flames. My apartment specifically. I was just crying," Ihde said, sobbing again. "And today's my 50th birthday. This is what I wake up to. It's just disgusting. I want all my stuff. I want my place back."
Don Powell said his wife realized something was wrong when the apartment building quaked and she looked out the window to see flames on the couple's second-floor porch. His wife and brother fled, Powell said. When he reached for a bird cage, the apartment windows exploded inward. Smoke filled the room, he said.
"I could hardly find the door to get out," said Powell.
The flames appeared to begin on the first floor and race upward, he said. Many residents reported hearing at least one explosion.
'I WISH I'D DONE DIFFERENT'
Stephanie Nevarez, 24, was crawling down the hall on the second floor under the thick smoke when she heard screaming. She followed the sound and found her neighbor, gripped with panic, holding her naked baby in the middle of her living room.
"It seemed like she was in really deep shock," she said.
She grabbed the neighbor's hand, she said, and led them out of the smoke and down the stairs. Somewhere in the hallway she realized she'd forgotten to take her mother's ashes with her. Her mother died Dec. 12 and she was full of regret over not taking the ashes with her.
"I wish I'd done different," she said. "I was just trying to think quick on my feet and get out."
Tamagni did not have a dollar estimate for the damages but as the smoke cleared from the scene, it was apparent that most of the building had been charred and the roof was mostly gone. Tamagni said the building, which is older, did not have a sprinkler system.
"It was a bad fire and I wouldn't be surprised if it were a total loss," said Mike Grisham, a partner in Eureka LLC, which owns the apartments.
The building had a fire inspection in May, Grisham said. All the fire warning and suppression systems were in place, he said. The building was operated by a property manager. He did not know if the building leases required rental insurance. Tenants who had paid rent this month would get it back, he said. The property manager would work to help find new apartments.
The city and the American Red Cross of Alaska opened a shelter for those displaced by the fire at the Spenard Recreation Center. By midafternoon, 10 people had taken up residence there, the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management said in a news release. The Red Cross was assisting a total of 16 people, it said. Four cats and two fish were rescued and taken to Animal Care and Control, which was working on finding their owners.
Reach Kyle Hopkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4334.
By JULIA O'MALLEY, KYLE HOPKINS and ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
Anchorage Daily News