By Rikki King Herald Writer
EVERETT — A fatal three-alarm fire broke out late Thursday night in downtown Everett, heavily damaging a historic building and displacing nearly 40 people.
The fire claimed the life of at least one person, but crews on Friday afternoon were unable to remove the body because the building wasn’t safe to enter, Everett police spokesman Aaron Snell said. The person’s age, gender and cause of death weren’t immediately known.
The cause of the fire can’t be determined until police and fire crews can get inside to investigate, Snell said.
The fire was reported about 9:30 p.m. in an upstairs apartment complex at 1814 Hewitt Ave.
Much of the area around the intersection of Hewitt and Oakes avenues remained closed off Friday as crews mopped up the damage. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic was blocked due to the potential of more brick walls collapsing, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said.
The fire was confined to the 118-year-old McCrossen Building, located just west of Comcast Arena. The two-story brick structure houses businesses at the street level and 13 apartments above. The structure is on the city’s master list of historic downtown properties.
Tenant Steve Cotter, 56, lost everything in the fire, including a Coca-Cola memorabilia collection owned by his late mother, and a certificate celebrating his grandfather’s service in World War II, he said.
He’d lived at the complex about three months. He was baking Thursday night where he heard a ruckus in the hall, he said.
“I opened up the door and a big cloud of smoke hit me in the face,” he said.
He turned off the oven, grabbed his coat and ran for the front door. It was only about 10 feet. He couldn’t see anything but smoke.
He returned Friday morning to survey the scene. He waited for news of a new home and chatted with friends who lived across the street.
“The only thing that looks normal in my place through the holes in the wall is my kitchen cabinets,” he said.
Several other buildings in the area were evacuated Thursday night due to thick smoke.
People who lived in the complex were sheltered overnight by the American Red Cross. Comcast Arena also opened its doors Thursday night to let people in from the cold.
Nearly 100 firefighters battled the blaze from all over Snohomish County, Reardon said. The fire was mostly knocked down by about 3:20 a.m., but hot spots burned into late morning.
Two people who had been watching downwind were taken to a local hospital Thursday night with possible smoke inhalation, Everett Fire Marshal Rick Robinson said.
Jerry Ott, 40, was one of the neighbors across the street who watched the fire after being asked to leave his building.
Flames seemed to shoot 30 to 40 feet in the air, he said. People were outside, talking and crying, late into the night.
“It was hectic out here,” he said.
The owner of the building next door, Brad Seltzer, and his wife, Kathy, waited outside Friday morning with one of the accounting firm employees, Laura Antillon.
“We fared so much better than I feared,” Antillon said.
The Seltzers were on scene until about 1 a.m. Friday, Kathy Seltzer said. Their alarm company called them shortly after the fire broke out.
“The smoke was so bad, you could smell it for like a mile before you got here,” she said.
People were watching the fire from all over, including nearby rooftops, she said.
“It got to the point that it was so cold we had to go,” Kathy Seltzer said.
They returned just hours later, and they could still see wisps of smoke and hear bricks cracking, she said.
“The firefighters were relentless,” she said. “They were amazing.”
At one point Friday morning, firefighters stepped into the building next door to grab a file for one woman who had a hearing in court. The woman expressed gratitude as she rushed away.
The Seltzers expected it will be several days before they’ll know when tenants could return.
The American Red Cross estimated nearly 40 people were displaced, said Chuck Morrison, executive director for the Snohomish County chapter.
Nine Red Cross volunteers were on the scene Thursday night, though many of the local volunteers remain on the East Coast for Hurricane Sandy relief, Morrison said.
People were housed overnight at a nearby church. Efforts Friday were expected to focus on finding them temporary housing and food and replacing lost clothing and prescriptions.
According to the Everett Public Library, the McCrossen Building was built for grocers Thayer and McCrossen as part of the initial burst of construction in the city. For a time, the post office was located on the ground floor.
Power to the downtown area was shut off for some time overnight to prevent live power lines from snapping and falling onto people near the scene, Robinson said.
City crews on Friday afternoon were hoping to start tearing down outer walls before nightfall, Reardon said. They also planned to put up fences to secure the area, and were working with Puget Sound Energy and the Snohomish County PUD.
The intersection at Hewitt and Oakes avenues likely will be closed for several days, Reardon said. The city was working with Comcast Arena, since traffic and access to arena entrances likely will be impacted for a Saturday night event.
The last three-alarm fire in city limits was June 25, 2008, and destroyed the Stewart Title Co. offices along Wetmore Avenue.
Herald staffers Scott North and Mark Mulligan contributed to this story.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org