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Rural Alaska

Fire in Nome apartment block displaces at least 20 people

NOME -- Fire tore through an eight-unit apartment block Thursday night, injuring two and displacing more than 20 people while gutting the building with flames that refused to subside even after more than an hour of active firefighting.

Emergency dispatchers said calls poured in at 7:06 p.m. reporting "black smoke and fire" coming from the apartment building at Third Avenue and Moore Way.

Flames licked the southwest face of the L-shaped building as smoke billowed from the second- and first-story windows. Within minutes the vinyl siding of the southwest face had boiled away, leaving a deep black gash belching cinders and smoke.

Firefighters with the Nome Volunteer Fire Department arrived on scene within five minutes, and EMTs with the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department arrived five minutes later. Acting Fire Chief Jim West Jr. said the cause of the fire was unknown but he suspects it had a human origin.

"I think it was human," West said late Thursday. "I don't know exactly if it started upstairs or downstairs. Probably downstairs. Most likely it started in the downstairs; fire burns up."

Brian Volk, a teacher at Nome's NACTEC technical school, lives in the building with his girlfriend and three children. He said he saw the smoke at about 7:15, went outside and found people already watching the fire.

Jessica Russell lives on the second floor of the building. She said she and her boyfriend were in their living room "and we heard screaming outside and we looked outside the kitchen window and we saw smoking coming out of the apartment."

She grabbed her kids as she and her boyfriend hurried outside -- only to spot a neighbor who, for whatever reason, refused to leave.

"Her head was out the window and she was coughing. And they were trying to tell her to get out, but she wouldn't get out," Russell said. "And when they finally got her out she was standing on her porch and they were telling her to get away from the building and … they were just standing there. I don't know why she didn't want to leave."

Fire crews did an immediate sweep and evacuated the building as persistent flames leapt toward the roof. EMTs said two people were taken to Norton Sound Regional Hospital for "minor smoke inhalation." Responders on the scene said there were no other injuries and everyone made it out safely.

Power cables connected to the building crackled in the heat of the rising fire. Dispatchers cut power to the building around 7:25 p.m. as crews used a bolt cutter to sever two power lines running to the structure. Firefighters on one truck's turntable ladder attempted to vent the smoke and flames using a chain saw near the roof, as another crew worked with hoses to continue dousing the blaze from the building's western face.

That's when Russell said she looked back to her second-floor apartment and noticed smoke and flames coming from her neighbor's unit.

"I have so many valuable things in there. … I have too much stuff to lose in there," she said, her voice straining. "I have pictures, birth certificates, files that I need."

She sighed and wiped away tears. "My kuspuks, my parka, my mukluks, everything. I have everything there. And if my apartment burned down, then I don't have anything."

Crews began to enter the building just after 8 p.m., but the fire refused to go out, forcing them out again for another assault with hoses. A half-hour later flames were still visible on the roof, but just before 9 p.m. flames had subsided and crews were able to safely enter the building and begin eliminating hot spots.

West said the building is likely a total loss.

"Structurally, on the south side, it's gone," he said after the fire had come under control. "I think they'll wind up having to tear that section down, or tear the whole thing down."

The Bering Straits Native Corp. owns the building. Vice President Jerald Brown said at the scene last night the building houses families, BSNC employees and teachers -- in all, more than 20 people, including children. Brian Stockman, manager at the Aurora Inn, just yards from the scene of the blaze, said the inn made 10 rooms available Thursday night to those who were displaced.

Though formal donations have not yet been organized, Stockman said donations of clothes and other items for children were welcome. He said the hotel was providing food, diapers and clothes.

West said he was proud of the work of the emergency responders who helped get the fire under control and helped ensure people were safe.

"It's amazing that we have all these guys here that showed up. It's a real honor to work with them," West said. "They put their best foot forward when we have an incident."

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