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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Blaze guts South Toledo apartment buildings

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Nine buildings in a South Toledo apartment complex were destroyed early yesterday by a rapid, three-alarm fire that displaced about 200 people and left ruins smoldering into the afternoon.

Authorities said no one was hurt in the blaze at the Hunters Ridge complex on Gibraltar Heights near Byrne Road and Airport Highway.

With the fire s speed and intensity, and the buildings close proximity, fire officials said they were amazed that everyone escaped injury. Structural damage was estimated at $5 million.

Fire Chief Mike Wolever said arson investigators are working to determine whether fireworks sparked the blaze. According to the chief, witnesses observed people shooting firecrackers in the area and saw some land on the roof of apartment Building K, where the fire began.

The first 911 call came in at 1:30 a.m., and at the peak of the response, 86 Toledo firefighters were on scene, including 13 engines and four trucks, Assistant Chief Luis Santiago said.

Fire officials said the blaze was the most intense Toledo apartment fire in at least a decade.

Firefighters, rescue workers, and Toledo police officers rushed building to building and door to door evacuating tenants.

Nearly four hours passed before the blaze was under control at about 5:30 a.m.

Of the 12 buildings affected by the fire 11 apartment buildings and the Hunters Ridge office only three remained standing by early afternoon. While fire crews used aerial hoses to douse the rubble from overhead, city workers used excavation machines to knock down the most heavily damaged buildings and help smother the smoking debris.

About 125 apartment units were involved in the fire, and 93 were destroyed, said Rich Folck, project manager for Karam Managed Properties LLC, which both manages and owns Hunters Ridge. Each building contained about 11 units.

The three-story brick apartment buildings were built in 1977. The buildings were laid out in a staggered horseshoe pattern, and fire officials said the flames traveled along the attics connecting them.

It traveled attic to attic, and if it didn t have an attic to go to, it traveled by radiant heat, said Lt. Ken Kantura, a fire safety officer, You couldn t get close to the building it would just melt the helmet on your head.

Jennifer Baez, 26, was among the displaced. She, her husband, and their three young children lived in a second-floor apartment in Building K, the first structure to catch fire.

Mrs. Baez said she was watching television when she heard a neighbor knock on her door, yelling for them to evacuate. She raced around her apartment gathering her children and then managed to grab her cell phone on their way out the door.

You could have roasted a marshmallow from where we were standing, she said.

Mrs. Baez and her family followed other evacuees to the parking lot of an adjacent apartment complex, walking through a hole that rescuers cut in a chain-link fence. All their physical possessions, including baby albums and her wedding dress, remained inside their apartment as it burned.

It s like your whole life just burning away in a couple hours, said Mrs. Baez, who plans to stay in Toledo at a relative s former house. I just feel bad for the people that don t have renter s insurance.

As frantic residents ran from their apartments and into the street, Danette Gilling, 31, wasn t worried when she awakened to the smell of smoke.

After all, she said, it was the morning after the Fourth of July, and smoky air from fireworks is all a part of the holiday.

But once she saw the flames outside her window, her heart began racing. She grabbed her 3-year-old son and ran outside.

Little remains of nine buildings of a South Toledo apartment complex that caught fire, causing an estimated $5 million loss. Little remains of nine buildings of a South Toledo apartment complex that caught fire, causing an estimated $5 million loss.
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I looked up and my apartment was in flames, Ms. Gilling said, so we got out just in time.

Many people lost their vehicles along with their apartments. Several were swallowed by flames and falling debris, leaving just charred metal carcasses.

We actually saw car pieces flying through the air as they were exploding, said Melody Anderson, 20, who lives in a nearby apartment building that emerged untouched by fire. It truly looked like something out of a movie. It was really scary.

Some who did lose their apartments were not home at the time of the fire. Meeghan Yard said she had been visiting her sister in Cleveland and knew nothing about it until about 10:30 a.m., when she returned to discover her apartment had become a heap of rubble.

A ladder truck is used to hose down hot spots remaining from the Hunters Ridge fire. A ladder truck is used to hose down hot spots remaining from the Hunters Ridge fire.
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That bulldozer is sitting in my apartment, said Miss Yard, 20, who, like many of those displaced, lacked insurance. I ve lived in apartments all my life and never had it, never thought I needed it.

Smoke billowed for hours from the burned-out buildings, filling the air with black ashes and white smoke until long after visible flames had been extinguished.

Mr. Folck, the apartments manager, said the tentative plan is to rehabilitate the three apartment buildings that survived the fire, Buildings A through C. He did not say whether the company plans to rebuild the structures that burned down.

Emily McKee, 23, stood with her parents behind yellow police tape as she starred at Building G s burnt remains. She watched anxiously as a demolition excavator s giant teeth moved to crush her second-floor apartment s walls and ceilings.

Oh God! There s my fridge, she said, pointing. Those are my towels and my bathing suits. Oh, and there s my Jesus cross. There s my Jesus cross!

Ms. McKee finally had to turn her head, and fell into her mother s arms.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner held a news conference yesterday on the Gibraltar Heights cul-de-sac with the ruins behind him.

It is really miraculous that with all of the devastation not one single person, to the best of our knowledge, was hurt in any way, shape, or form except mentally and emotionally, the mayor said.

Robert Reinbolt, the mayor s chief of staff, said the devastation should serve as a lesson to the community about the improper use of fireworks and suggested stricter enforcement of state fireworks laws.

Under Ohio law, only sparklers, trick noisemakers, and novelties may be lit without restriction. Other consumer fireworks may be purchased upon execution of a form under which the buyer promises to take the items out of the state.

Contact JC Reindl at:jreindl@theblade.comor 419-724-6065.



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