Windermere fire ruled accidental, residents still waiting for news

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Residents of the Windermere senior living apartments in Littleton are still waiting to find out when or if they'll be able to return to their units, two days after an early-morning fire forced the evacuation of the building on Nov. 17.

Resident Michael Mitchell, 70, died in the fire, and 13 others were injured. Their condition was not available Monday. All residents of the complex's east tower, which has at least 130 units, were displaced.

Though air quality test results were supposed to come back by the evening of Nov. 19, they weren't yet available, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the building.

Boian had little news for residents in an afternoon meeting at the Life Center, a nonprofit whose building on South Datura Street — just down the road from the apartment complex, south of Littleton Boulevard — has served as a makeshift Red Cross shelter for displaced residents.

Nobody was available to test samples taken from the building over the weekend, Boian said, though he hoped to have some results by the time of the next briefing, scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 20. Boian said he did not know if asbestos in the building had been disturbed.

Tebo-Orvis principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis offered up nine unoccupied and unfurnished apartments in the complex's other tower, which faces Windermere Street, for the nine residents who still have nowhere else to go, Boian said.

“That took some doing,” Boian said of arranging the apartments. “That's just for tonight. I don't have any guarantees longer than that.”

The Red Cross will set up cots in the empty units, Boian said.

Arapahoe County will provide assistance to residents if longer-term housing is needed, said Linda Haley, who oversees the county's Housing and Community Development department.

One resident died and 13 people were injured in the fire, which started shortly after 5 a.m. Nov. 17. The blaze, which was contained to a first-floor apartment, was ruled accidental, said Tim Stover, Littleton Fire Rescue's fire investigator.

“We know the area of origin, but we still need to finalize specifically what started it,” Stover said. 

The building has fire sprinklers only in the basement, Stover said, because it is grandfathered into the fire codes in place when it was built in the early 1970s. The complex's other tower, which was renovated in 2016 after a fire that left more than 130 residents scrambling for new homes, has sprinklers only in the basement as well.

Though owners are required to bring buildings up to modern code requirements — which include fire sprinklers — at the time of renovation, the 2016 renovation was deemed by city staff not significant enough to mandate the installation of sprinklers in either building, Stover said.

Stover said the building that caught fire Nov. 17 was up to code, and that the fire department had signed off on a recently-installed fire panel.

“The panel did what it was supposed to do, which is notify us,” Stover said.

The panel is connected only to smoke detectors in hallways and common areas, Stover said, not to fire alarms in individual units.

Numerous residents interviewed by the Independent said they didn't hear hallway fire alarms, and only became aware of the fire because of neighbors and first responders banging on their doors. Several residents described seeing hallways fill with black smoke for several minutes before alarms sounded.

Asked to respond to those reports, Boian said he wouldn't  "address innuendo.”

The Independent has requested fire-inspection records from the City of Littleton.

Some residents are still waiting to retrieve belongings, and even pets.

Jane Sterling-Price, 76, said she has been unable to get her cat Sassy, a 25-year-old Siamese, whom she believes is still hiding in her apartment. Jim Bair said he hasn't been able to get his wife's oxygen concentrator, and has been relying on bottled oxygen from the fire department. David North said he's gone two days without his heart medication.

For those who lived through the previous fire, Monday's situation felt all too familiar. After nearly two weeks of being in limbo in April 2016, residents learned they could only return to retrieve their belongings and would have to find new homes.

“Lots of what we're hearing now, it's what we heard two years ago: `We don't know anything,' ” said Marilyn Grannell, 79. “It's like a rerun. I love my apartment and I don't want to move.”

 

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