Sixty residents of a government housing complex for the elderly were forced from their homes Saturday by a blaze that injured four people, including a police officer who carried a 63-year-old woman down seven flights from her burning apartment.
Salt Lake police officer James R. Nelson was the first to arrive at the Phillips Plaza, 660 S. Third East, where smoke was billowing from a seventh story apartment.The eight-year veteran ran into the building and rescued Marian Richards, who was lying on the floor in the burning apartment.
"The smoke was so thick I couldn't just walk in," Nelson said. He crawled into the apartment on his hands and knees, pulled Richards from the room and carried her down the stairs. The woman's feet and clothes were scorched.
Although Richards was lying on the floor just inside of the apartment, Nelson said the smoke "was so thick when you first walked into the room that you couldn't see her there. She was gasping for air."
Richards was in fair condition at St. Marks Hospital. She was being treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns. Nelson was taken to Holy Cross Hospital.
Nelson said from his hospital bed he was "breathing kind of hard" and was admitted for treatment of smoke inhalation. He was in fair condition Saturday night.
Two other residents, Marie Casey, 62, and Thelma Cook, 70, were treated and released from Holy Cross Hospital, Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl said.
Nicholl said it was difficult to get many of the approximately 60 residents out of the building because some could not understand why they needed to leave. A second alarm was called mainly because of the size of the building and the help needed to evacuate the elderly residents, he said.
Nicholl said the 10:47 a.m. fire was caused by someone smoking in bed. He estimated $15,000 smoke and water damage to the apartment but said there was no structure damage to the eight-story building.
According to Nicholl, the fire was confined to one bedroom in the apartment thanks to the fire sprinkler system. "There was a lot of heat and smoke up there, but the sprinkler system did the job," he said.
Building resident Minne Denos, 84, said she tried to help Richards before Nelson arrived, but because of her age, could not lift her. Flames in the apartment were about 3 feet high and about 3 feet from where Richards was lying.
"I went inside and I saw the flames. I saw her lying on the floor and I couldn't help her," Denos said.
Another resident, 79-year-old Leah Terkelson, was sitting in her seventh-floor apartment when she heard a fire alarm.
"I got up and went out. By then there was smoke flowing out of Marian's apartment," she said. "I opened the door and it was all ablaze, so I ran to a phone and called the fire department."
Terkelson said she pounded on apartment doors to warn other residents of the fire and then went downstairs to safety.
"I grabbed my coat and my purse and a pair of pants and some pills and got out," she said.
Betty Fitzwilliam, 62, who lives next door to Richards' apartment, said she was thankful someone knocked on her door because she was in bed asleep when the fire occurred