Dozens of people left homeless by a three-alarm fire that destroyed the Roosevelt Apartments in downtown Salt Lake City shared hot coffee with out-of-state skiers in the plush Clarion Hotel lobby Thursday morning.
The skiers had a destination. Many of those forced onto the streets by the early morning fire at 256 E. 300 South have none."Don't ask me what I am going to do," said Oril Hanson, 81, who sought warmth by the blazing log in the hotel fireplace. A worn wool blanket covered his lab. "In a while I'll call my sister. I don't want to awaken her now."
Hanson was among about 80 people whose belongings were ravaged by the fire that continued to shoot flames and shroud the neighborhood in black smoke as daylight broke through the fog Thursday morning.
More than 91 firefighters worked through the night, finally containing the blaze at 6:30 a.m. Fire officials estimated the damage at $1 million. The cause is still under investigation.
It was the second time in six weeks that a fire of mysterious origin forced the tenants of the Roosevelt Apartments to the street in frigid weather.
Around 12:15 a.m., the residents were taken to the YWCA, and hours later they were moved by the American Red Cross. About 35 were provided rooms at the Clarion; others went to stay with family or friends.
"I heard the sirens and immediately told the police to take them in the building out of the cold," said Carol Martindale, operator of the YWCA shelter. "Their ages ranged from 8 to 80. Some came naked and we found them clothes. Their emotions ranged from being upset to angry."
Martindale said the tenants lost everything. They left their apartments with nothing more than they could quickly grab.
"At least I had enough sense to grab my billfold," said Rudolfo Villa, a Salt Lake County employee, who helped comfort the elderly in the hotel lobby Thursday morning.
But tenants' invaluable pictures and important papers were turned to ash by the morning blaze. Hanson lamented the big bottle of money and a new pair of expensive shoes he left behind in his $165-a-month apartment. Other elderly persons silently cried, wondering how to start over. Many have no insurance covering personal belongings.
"But I did save my hat," Hanson said, patting the straw hat resting on the hotel couch. "My niece gave it to me. It's the first time I've ever worn it."
Throughout the day case workers from the Salt Lake Chapter of the American Red Cross met with apartment tenants."Our case workers will be working with them to take a look at their individual needs and to assist in their relocation," said Lois Barker, chapter manager. "The Red Cross will assist with food, clothing and other basic necessities. If people are interested in donating, they should donated through the Red cross and note on their checks it's for disaster relief."
Since Social Security checks couldn't be mailed to the elderly tenants, the Salt Lake Postal Service delivered the checks to the Clarion Thursday afternoon. Fire officials planned to allow some to return to their apartments to see if anything could be salvaged.
None of the tenants or firefighters were injured in the fire, which started on the center stairway on the east side stairway on the third floor, said Salt Lake City Fire Department Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl.
But because the fire consumed the roof, firefighters were pulled out of the building for their own safety.
Seven engines and three aerial ladder trucks responded to the blaze. When the firefighters arrived shortly before midnight, flames were already shooting off the roof of the three-story building. The firefighters immediately cleared the building, in some cases kicking in doors and shoving reluctant tenants outside to safety, Nicholl said.
After the building had been burning about an hour, the roof grew so unstable all the firefighters were pulled off the third floor. And when that happened, Nicholl said, the building, which had been recently retrofitted with fire escapes and sprinklers, was essentially lost and firefighting efforts became mostly defensive - keeping the fire from spreading to other buildings on the street.
"The biggest problem we had was how quickly this fire became unsafe for our firefighters," Nicholl said.
Frigid temperatures compounded that danger, and after about two hours, a motor home was brought to the scene and used as a place where firefighters could go to take turns warming up. "Cold is cold," Nicholl said. "But when you mix cold with water, you've got real problems."
The YWCA gave residents refuge from cold. But only temporarily.
As one resident proclaimed to the crowd gathered across the street from the building, they would need more than a night's lodging. "We're homeless," he shouted to another tenant.
On Nov. 27, a much smaller fire broke out in the basement of the building at almost exactly the same time of night, forcing the evacuation of the building. That blaze was contained quickly and caused relatively little damage. Nicholl said he did not know the cause of either fire.
But resident Harold Kennedy, who was home the night of Nov. 27, said the first fire started when transients who had broken out a basement window and climbed into the building ignited something in the basement, possibly while smoking.
"I said then, `I am going to move out of there. I don't care how long I've lived here,' " said Villa, a resident of the Roosevelt for more than 20 years. "Now I have to move."