Windermere fire: 'I can't believe this is happening again'

Senior living apartment fire on Nov. 17 recalls devastating 2016 incident

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For some of the dozen residents who spent the night in a Red Cross shelter after a fire forced the evacuation of the Windermere senior living apartments on Nov. 17, the situation feels all too familiar.

“I can't believe this is happening again,” said Ray Hays, 69, lying beneath a Red Cross blanket on a cot in the Life Center across the street from the apartment tower on South Datura Street in Littleton. Hays was one of the more than 130 people evicted from the apartment complex's other tower in 2016 after a devastating fire.

Hays, who is deaf in one ear and totally blind, lives on Social Security. He has an autoimmune disorder that means staying in a shelter is a dangerous proposition for him, he said, because of the risk of contracting an illness that could prove deadly.

“I've got renter's insurance, but there's a $500 deductible,” Hays said Nov. 18. “I can't afford a hotel. My family's far away.”

Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the complex, is working to find “alternative housing” for affected residents, said Andy Boian, a spokesman representing Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, the company's principals.

Boian said he didn't know yet how many residents were displaced. Given the number of people who were displaced in the April 2016 fire at the other building, it's likely more than 100 people call the five-story building home.

Tebo-Orvis is waiting on results of air quality tests that will determine when or if residents can return to their units, Boian said. Those results are expected by Monday night.

Like many in the tower, Hays was alerted to the fire by someone pounding on his door shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 17.

The fire started in a first-floor apartment, according to a city news release. While officials said the fire was contained to that one unit, smoke was reported throughout the building.

Michael Craig Mitchell, 70, who lived in the apartment, was found dead inside. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, according to City of Littleton spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

The majority of the nearly two dozen residents interviewed by the Independent said they couldn't hear hallway fire alarms from inside their units, and only learned of the fire because of police, firefighters and neighbors roaming the halls banging on doors. At least 13 people were injured in the fire, including three police officers. Three are seriously injured, including one resident who jumped off a second-story balcony.

Many residents and their families are worried about what will happen next, with many keenly aware that the 2016 fire left residents in limbo for days before finding out they had no home to return to.

Don Reisner, 91, previously lived in the tower that burned in 2016. He said he's worried he'll end up moving from place to place again, like last time.

“I stayed with my grandson for a while, then in a house my church owns,” Reisner said. “I was so glad to move back here.”

Reisner, who has asthma, COPD, thyroid problems and a pacemaker, said he didn't stay with relatives last night because several are sick with strep throat, which he's worried he could contract.

For many in the shelter, though, the day after the fire was focused on picking up what pieces they could.

“I wish I knew what's going to become of my sister's home,” said Jude Coffee, who stopped by the shelter to pick up medications for her 73-year-old sister Carolyn Vierling, who is in intensive care with severe lung damage.

“I don't know anything yet about Carolyn's insurance,” Coffee said. “I've got a lot of work to do to get her through this.”

Karlene Austgen, 68, was still looking for her cat Zuzu, who may have ended up in an shelter with other residents' pets. Austgen has a sister in Englewood, but Austgen has a hard time getting up and down the steps to her sister's home, so Austgen opted for the shelter.

“A hotel would've been more comfortable,” Austgen said. “Cots aren't the nicest thing to sleep on at my age.”

Barbara Fry, 80, said she fears she doesn't have the energy to look for another place.

“I pay just under a thousand dollars a month for a one-bedroom, and I'm not sure I could still get that elsewhere,” said Fry, who escaped the building yesterday by scooting down five flights of stairs on her rear end to keep her head below the smoke billowing up the stairwell, while kicking her walker down each flight of steps ahead of her.

Residents won't be left in the cold, said Loni Koller, a Red Cross disability integration specialist helping oversee the shelter.

“We're here as long as they need us,” Koller said. “We've been doing our best to make this a smooth transition.”

Koller said emergency personnel were able to retrieve residents' medications, and the shelter has a nurse on staff.

Other agencies have been stepping in to help, Koller said, including Littleton United Methodist Church, which fed residents a turkey dinner on Nov. 17; Love Inc., a local nonprofit that has been offering a variety of services and assistance to displaced residents; Panera Bread, which donated boxed lunches; and the Life Center, which donated their building for use as a shelter.

The Life Center was also the shelter for residents after the 2016 fire.

“We're OK for now, but we just wish we knew what management was going to do,” said Jan Sterling-Price, 76. “But I know the Lord will look after us.”

 

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