EDMONDS — Shannon Davis was sitting down to eat late Wednesday afternoon when she heard a fire alarm sound somewhere at the Edmonds Highlands Apartments.
Davis told her two elementary-school-age sons to stay put while she went outside to investigate.
She saw smoke pouring from a second-floor apartment in the building across from hers. She knew the man who lived there only by sight, but wanted to make sure he was safe.
Running over, she found his door ajar. It wouldn’t open any farther.
“We were screaming, but we couldn’t get in,” said Davis a 28-year-old nursing student. “There was too much stuff in the way. He wasn’t responding.”
Then, the flames inside the man’s apartment started to grow. She knew it was time to turn her attention to other neighbors, so they could escape.
“I just started screaming for everybody to get out,” Davis said. “I don’t think a lot of people knew. I think they thought it was fire drill or something.”
Wednesday’s fire at the complex on the 23000 block of Edmonds Way was no drill.
Firefighters would later find a 52-year-old tenant dead in the apartment where the blaze started. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office identified him as Andrew Duncan Oates. The medical examiner said he died from fire-related injuries.
More than 30 firefighters from District 1, Shoreline and Lynnwood fought the blaze. They were dispatched at 4:51 p.m., with the first crews arriving quickly from a station a few blocks away. When they got there, flames already were shooting from windows on both sides of the three-story building.
None of the 35 people who live in that building were able to return that night because power was cut. Fire, smoke and water damaged half of the apartments in that building, and 11 people will be forced to look for new homes.
Investigators believe the fire began with a lit cigarette and suspect the man may have fallen asleep while smoking, said Leslie Hynes, a spokeswoman for Snohomish County Fire District 1.
The National Fire Protection Association reports smoking materials as the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States.
Investigators believe the fire had been smoldering for some time before any alarms went off.
“By the time people saw the fire, it was already pretty big,” Hynes said.
The smoke detector in the apartment where the fire started appeared to be lacking a battery, she said. The man’s door likely was blocked by some weights and an exercise bicycle he had just ordered. That made it hard for firefighters to enter the apartment, too.
Estimates put damage at more than $550,000.
Davis’ building was unaffected.
On Thursday, she remained saddened by her neighbor’s death. She remembered seeing him around during the year she’d lived at the complex, but didn’t know him. He kept to himself.
“I could tell that the guy was lonely and kind of down,” she said.
Davis’ actions helped save the lives of several people and a dog, said Mindy Woods, her friend and neighbor.
Woods, 46, also had rushed outside to see the thick smoke on Wednesday afternoon, but stayed in the parking lot comforting displaced neighbors.
“Sadly, a lot of us didn’t know each other until yesterday,” she said.
Soon, the Snohomish County Chapter of the American Red Cross showed up and began assisting. The team, which included counselors, stayed until late into the night.
“I couldn’t even ask the tenants what they needed,” Woods said, “because the Red Cross was already on it.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.