Through the smoke

As Windermere apartments fill back up after 2018 fire, survivors still struggle

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/28/21

“I remember the railing was hot.” On a calm June afternoon, Anne Heathman ran her fingers along the steel railing of the balcony of her old apartment — the first time she had visited since the …

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Through the smoke

As Windermere apartments fill back up after 2018 fire, survivors still struggle

Posted

“I remember the railing was hot.”

On a calm June afternoon, Anne Heathman ran her fingers along the steel railing of the balcony of her old apartment — the first time she had visited since the morning she narrowly escaped with her life.

Heathman, 76, was one of 163 seniors who fled an early-morning fire that ravaged the Windermere apartment building at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton on Nov. 17, 2018.

Heathman was awakened a little after 5 a.m. that morning by a Littleton police officer pounding on her first-floor patio door, howling for her to get out. As she struggled to make sense of what was happening, the officer bashed out her sliding glass doors, screaming FIRE, FIRE! GET OUT! He leaped back across the railing and made his way to the next unit.

Heathman cut her hand on the shattered glass of the door as she stepped onto the balcony. The unit next door was roiling in black smoke. Flames licked around the wall, clawing toward her.

An officer stood in the courtyard, yelling YOU HAVE TO JUMP!

Heathman put her hands on the railing, growing hot from the inferno next door, and struggled to climb on a bad knee. She pushed off as hard as she could, and landed in the waiting arms of “a very handsome young policeman.”

She clambered to her feet, but the officer was already gone. Heathman glanced back at her apartment, but the flames erupting from her neighbor’s unit were too strong.

Officers and firefighters made their way through first-floor units, kicking in doors and smashing windows in search of others. One panicked resident was found hiding in a bathtub. Another was injured as she jumped from a second-story balcony after the hallways filled with smoke.

The building along Datura Street, built in 1972, lacked many modern fire protection devices. The HVAC system, without smoke detectors to trigger dampers that would have been mandated with newer construction, continued circulating, sending smoke churning through all five floors. With no sprinkler system, the fire burned unabated. Without in-unit fire alarms, many elderly residents couldn’t hear the hallway alarms, and remained unaware of the fire until neighbors pounded on their doors.

Residents funneled down the fire escape stairs, making their way across the street in slippers and pajamas. A frigid wind bore down as a snowstorm blew in.

As luck — or grace — would have it, across the street was the Life Center, a church-run outreach organization for the needy, and next door was Love INC., another outreach group.

Even before the flames had subsided, volunteers from both groups began transforming the Life Center into a shelter. Soon the American Red Cross arrived with food, water, cots and blankets.

As the smoke cleared, the toll began to take shape. The fire had been contained to one unit. Its occupant, Michael Mitchell, was dead. It was his 70th birthday. Investigators would later determine the fire was likely caused by his habit of smoking cigarettes in his unit — a violation of the rules, and one Heathman and other neighbors had reported to management several times.

Many people were injured, including several police officers who inhaled smoke as they repeatedly plunged back into the building to help residents escape.

The days that followed were hard. More than a dozen residents lingered in the Life Center, sleeping on cots as they awaited word on their homes, belongings and pets. Though they were eventually moved to hotels, many grew angry as days ticked by with spotty, often garbled or inaccurate communication from building management.

More than two weeks after the fire, management made the announcement many had feared — there would be no going home. The building was completely contaminated, and all residents were being evicted.

The owners, Boulder real estate magnate Stephen Tebo and business partner Heath Orvis, through their company Tebo-Orvis LLC, gave residents their security deposits back, pro-rated rent going back to the day of the fire, and $500 each.

Meanwhile, supporters rose to the occasion. Community members donated tens of thousands of dollars to a support fund. Linda Haley, Arapahoe County’s housing program manager, and Kathryn Roy, the head of Love INC., teamed up to undertake a Herculean effort to get survivors back on their feet. Droves of volunteers assembled to assist residents in navigating the bureaucracy of insurance. Local churches, in particular the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints mobilized to help residents move.

For some, the nightmare was a recurring one — numerous residents had survived a similar fire in 2016, just two years earlier, in the complex’s other tower, on the west side facing Windermere Street, which also left scores of residents homeless and destitute.

As months went by, the survivors of the second Windermere fire found new homes. Some lingered in hotels for weeks. Faced with a severe shortage of affordable and accessible housing in the Littleton area, they scattered as far as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, often far from family, friends, and the support system they had come to rely on.

‘They have betrayed my trust’

This spring, the eastern tower of the Windermere apartments reopened, following a two-and-a-half-year, $4.7 million renovation. Though the building now has updated fire alarms, it still lacks a sprinkler system and in-unit alarms tied to the central alarm system, neither of which was legally required as part of the update.

Heathman is one of perhaps two dozen survivors of the 2018 fire who moved back into the Windermere, who despite the trauma and hardship, discovered it remains among their better options for accessible, relatively affordable senior housing near family.

Heathman said she has drawn on God’s strength and grace to get her through. She lost more than 150 pounds after the fire, saying her survival inspired her to take charge of her health. She now leads a collective ministry group of photographers and artists called In The Beginning, with a portion of art and photo sales going to support Love INC., where she remains an enthusiastic and devoted volunteer.

But the Windermere continues to test her. After the second fire, Heathman moved into a fifth-floor unit in the building’s west tower in 2019. Not long after, the fire alarms went off due to a small kitchen fire a few floors below. Heathman bolted to the end of the hallway, only to discover the fire exit door was blocked and wouldn’t open, throwing her into a panic (management has since fixed the problem, she said).

Last month, Heathman received a bill from management for a $150 maintenance fee — triple the normal rate. Building ownership says the fee was in error.

In April, a resident apparently experiencing a mental health crisis allegedly shot out his patio door and a main entrance door with a handgun before fleeing onto a neighbor’s balcony.

According to a police report, It took a SWAT team two hours to talk the man into surrendering. The man was charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors in the incident.

Police were not specific about where the man is currently located, but when asked if the man was in a mental health treatment facility, Littleton Police Division Chief Andrew Smith responded, “you are thinking along the correct lines.”

Through it all, management remains uncommunicative, Heathman said.

“They have betrayed my trust,” she said. “They didn’t come to the shelter after the fire, they don’t communicate what they’re doing, they didn’t tell us when there was a shooter, and I could tell you a hundred stories of things they haven’t followed up on. They have lost my confidence.”

She and friends keep a lookout for apartments at different locations, but Heathman said there aren’t a lot of places to go. Besides, she has other reasons to stay. Her neighbors across the hall are in their 90s, and lost both their children and grandchildren in a shooting several years ago. Heathman looks after them.

“I try to walk with the Lord,” she said. “My neighbors have no one. I don’t feel free to go yet. But they won’t be here forever, and then I’d like to go.”

Still no sprinklers

The building’s east tower — the site of the 2018 fire — is slowly filling up with residents, though Heathman’s old unit, number 131, and Mitchell’s, number 133, are both still vacant.

The building sports a new fire alarm system, said Anthony Valdez, the fire marshal for South Metro Fire Rescue, which provides fire protection to Littleton.

Upgrades include a new central fire alarm panel, a sort of computerized hub that monitors the whole building, as well as new smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fire alarm pull stations, HVAC dampers and a radio amplification system that facilitates radio communication throughout the five-story building.

The building is still without a sprinkler system or in-unit fire alarms tied to the building’s central alarm system. Though both are required by modern fire code, Valdez said neither could be legally mandated at the Windermere because the renovations were not categorized as significant enough to trigger compliance with new codes.

South Metro Fire Rescue is responsible for ensuring the building complies with fire code, Valdez explained. Once South Metro signs off on a building’s fire code compliance, it sends a report to the City of Littleton, which has the authority to offer a Certificate of Occupancy. The city granted one to the Windermere’s east tower on March 18, 2021, according to city records.

Speaking to Colorado Community Media about the fire for the first time, building owner Stephen Tebo said he’s satisfied with the building’s renovation and safety.

“There was asbestos in the building, and we had to tear everything down to the studs,” Tebo said. “The wiring and plumbing are new. I feel very good about what we’ve done there.”

Tebo said his team worked closely with South Metro Fire Rescue to comply with fire code.

“We did everything we could to prevent fires in the future,” he said.

As far as fire sprinklers, “with all our new alarms, the fire department said (sprinklers) wouldn’t be necessary,” Tebo said. “I guess we could’ve done a belt-and-suspenders kind of deal, but we’ve done everything we feel we needed to do, and everything recommended or suggested to us. The fire department said they were very comfortable with it.”

Valdez, the fire marshal, described the building differently.

“I would call it code-compliant,” Valdez said. “It meets the minimal standard. We’re big advocates of sprinklers, but the code doesn’t require them retroactively, and we have no legal means to compel the owners.”

South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker said most of the commercial and multifamily buildings in South Metro’s coverage area are newer construction and include sprinklers, though he said there are likely hundreds of older buildings without them.

“For that matter, most of our single-family homes don’t have sprinklers,” he said. “The world would be a better place if we all had them. It’s an extremely effective method to limit the spread of fire. If my mother-in-law were no longer going to live with us and I was going to find her a place to live, I’d try to find a place that’s sprinklered.”

Walking alongside survivors

The aftermath of the Windermere fire demonstrated the resiliency of survivors and the compassion of the community.

Kathryn Roy, who heads Love INC., said the immediate fallout of the Windermere fire birthed an idea that remains among the group’s core offerings to this day: the Navigator program.

In the hours after the fire, many survivors found themselves traumatized and overwhelmed, unable to begin the myriad complex tasks suddenly required of them.

“Everyone needed to call their insurance company, but that was just the first of so many decisions they had to make,” Roy said. “Many didn’t have family close by to help.”

Roy put out a call for volunteers to assist residents, and within days Love INC. had trained 40 resource navigators, each assigned to “walk alongside” a survivor and guide them through the journey back to safety, by helping them keep track of appointments, phone calls, documents and errands.

Among them was Heathman, who survived the fire, but stepped forward as a navigator. Also among the navigators was Sylvia Talkington, a Windermere resident who lived in the west tower and had survived the 2016 fire.

“In those first few hours, people needed everything,” Talkington said. “They needed underwear, shoes, medications and oxygen.”

But they also needed compassion. The fire itself was a severe trauma, but so was the slowly dawning realization that many had lost family heirlooms, photo albums and keepsakes.

“People were fighting mad,” Talkington recalled. “It was understandable. We cried with them.”

As days and weeks rolled by, the navigators proved vital. The program was such a success that Love INC. continues to use navigators to guide survivors of trauma, abuse, addiction and neglect into more stable and secure lives. Heathman and Talkington remain with the program.

“Every day we have people who call in with a variety of needs,” Roy said. “We’re always looking for more navigators who have the time and energy and love to walk with others through challenges. It’s a concept that really works, and there’s just so much need.”

Housing is ongoing crisis

The experience also demonstrated the severity of the lack of affordable, accessible housing in Littleton and the Denver area, said Linda Haley, the head of Arapahoe County’s housing program.

“It was extremely difficult to get those folks placed in new apartments,” Haley said. “And the situation hasn’t gotten any better since then.”

Many Windermere survivors had disabilities and accessibility needs, Haley said, meaning many apartments with stairs or without elevators wouldn’t work.

Many other apartments were too expensive.

“We’re talking about people who got maybe $1,200 a month on Social Security or disability,” she said. “They couldn’t afford market rate, and most of the waiting lists for housing assistance around here were closed or years long.”

While the Windermere fire was a catastrophic event, Haley said the lack of affordable housing for seniors remains an ongoing crisis.

“It doesn’t exist in anywhere near the amount we need,” she said. “Seniors are in a time in their lives where their options are very narrow. If you’re 78, you can’t just go out and get another job to increase your income. People think baby boomers have it made, but a lot of these folks didn’t ride that wave. Maybe they were housewives whose husband died. Maybe they lived paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t put money away. Nobody tells you how much you need to save when you’re in your 20s.”

In spite of the turmoil it caused, the Windermere remains an important component of the housing stock for seniors in the Littleton area, Haley said.

“The location is immensely important,” she said. “It’s so close to amenities. It fills a niche.”

Rents have gone up at the Windermere since the renovation. A one-bedroom unit was around $800 a month before the 2018 fire, but is up by more than 50% to over $1,200 now. That’s still below Littleton’s median one-bedroom rent of $1,340, according to ApartmentList.com.

“Not everyone can afford that, but some can, and that matters,” Haley said. “I cannot stress enough how crucial affordable housing is for our seniors, and how little there is.”

Living with it

For many survivors, the Windermere fire is never far from their daily reality.

One survivor is suing Tebo-Orvis for injuries and damages to his lungs, saying ownership was negligent by not reacting to complaints about Mitchell’s smoking, and also alleging fire alarms weren’t working properly. Tebo-Orvis rejects the claims. Stephen Tebo told Colorado Community Media he was unaware of the lawsuit.

Hannah Duncan had only lived in the building for three weeks when the fire struck. She moved into a hotel after the fire, where she fell in the shower that lacked the safety devices of the bathroom in her apartment.

Duncan, 61, herniated two discs in her neck, and had to have the discs removed and her neck fused.

She still endures panic attacks.

“I think there’s a fire, or I think I can smell smoke,” she said. “I don’t sleep well.”

Her angel is her cat, Ranger, who survived several days alone in her apartment after the fire, followed by an extended stay in a kennel while Duncan found an apartment about a mile north on Windermere Avenue.

Ranger can tell when Duncan is sinking into a panic attack, and climbs onto her lap and purrs.

Duncan’s new apartment is $200 more than she paid at the Windermere, and she can’t descend the steps to the laundry room, so she has to drive to a coin laundry. But she still says she would never return to the Windermere.

“I don’t even like to go by there,” Duncan said.

Carolyn Vierling, 76, suffered smoke inhalation during the fire and was hospitalized for three weeks. She now lives in Lakewood, and said the damage to her body is ongoing.

Her balance has suffered, as has her ability to finish sentences and complete thoughts. She fears she is experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which can be a byproduct of severe smoke inhalation.

“I was angry for a long time,” Vierling said. “I lost everything. I was unconscious in the hospital. I had no control over what was happening. But I’ve found meditation. I can’t be that angry all the time.”

Barbara Fry, 83, said only in the last few months has she been able to get to the point where “I don’t crumple to the floor when I think of the fire.”

She lives in Wheat Ridge now, in a complex beside a busy highway and hospital that are far louder than the quiet neighborhood around the Windermere. She has made friends, though she said she had to consistently remind herself to talk about something other than the fire.

Like many survivors, she said she lost many precious items, including souvenirs of childhood trips to the Grand Canyon and keepsakes from her parents.

She says she tries to have gratitude.

“I’m alive,” she said. “I could die in a car wreck. I could get shot at King Soopers like those poor people in Boulder. I’m not crying every day anymore.”

Heathman, who leaped off her balcony that chaotic morning, said she still flashes back to that moment.

“In my nightmares, I see the flames, I feel the heat,” she said.

But with time, faith and therapy, it’s getting better.

“I came through the smoke and the ashes. I’m here to ask how I can make the world a better place. It’s a new life.”

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