By Debra Smith and Diana Hefley Herald Writers
EVERETT — Stephanie Ortiz woke about 5:30 Saturday morning to the smell of smoke in her north Everett apartment.
She opened and closed the windows and went back to bed — until the sound of creaking and crashing from below woke her again.
She cracked the blinds on her bedroom window and saw flames and black smoke shooting toward her window from the apartment below.
“I called 911 and I was screaming into the phone,” she said, standing just outside her apartment Saturday morning, watching a phalanx of firefighters blast the blaze with water.
An early morning two-alarm fire ripped through a 10-unit apartment house at 3116 Lombard Ave., sending residents scrambling for safety as a mix of ash and snow fell over the neighborhood.
Fire crews later Saturday morning discovered the body of an apparent victim, Everett police Sgt. Robert Goetz said.
Major crimes detectives, including arson investigators, were called to the scene to help in the investigation. At this time there is no hint that the fire was deliberately set, but because there was a death, the fire-damaged apartments are being treated as a crime scene until determined otherwise, Goetz said.
A total of 18 people were living at the apartment building, Goetz said.
They did their best to save each other Saturday morning.
Ortiz and her boyfriend, Vana Polpanpua, threw on clothes and ran door to door in the early-1900s apartment building, pounding on doors and screaming “Fire! Get out! Fire!”
Polpanpua ran downstairs to the apartment below. He kicked in the door. The unit’s windows blasted out and he was met by a wall of inky black smoke, he said. His neighbor didn’t seem to be home.
Many in the building said they didn’t hear smoke alarms. Their neighbors’ pounding got them up and out of the house.
The fire moved fast. Firefighters arrived about 6 a.m. and found flames ravaging the two-story building. By 6:15 a.m., flames already were eating through the roof and licking through top-floor windows.
The heat was so intense that it blistered the paint on an office building next door.
Tavares Williams has lived on the ground floor since October. He said he was awakened by people yelling “Fire!” and pounding on doors.
“I grabbed whatever, just what was on my back,” he said, holding a cup of coffee and watching the fire from his friend’s car.
Other residents stood on the street, wrapped in blankets. One man had tears streaming down his face.
“It was so far gone by the time the first crews got here,” Everett Fire Marshal Glen Martinsen said. “A huge column of smoke could be seen from the station.”
Numerous firefighters battled the blaze from every direction. Fire crews tried to search inside but had to retreat. They doused the apartment and fought to keep the flames from spreading to nearby homes and apartment buildings. They blasted so much water that it ran in rivulets down the building’s concrete stairs, pooled ankle-deep on Lombard, and flowed down side streets and alleys onto Broadway.
Heather Doyle lived in one of the apartments with a friend who recently had a baby.
“She woke me up and said, ‘We have to go,’” Doyle said.
Her friend escaped from the apartment carrying her 1-month-old baby clutched in her arms. She wasn’t able to save anything else. Neither she nor Doyle had renter’s insurance.
“She left formula, diapers — everything,” Doyle said.
It’s likely the fire had been burning for a while before someone noticed it, Martinsen said. The cause remains under investigation. Fire investigators were at the scene much of the day.
The Snohomish County chapter of the American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter to help those people.
The First United Methodist Church, at 3530 Colby Ave., will keep its doors open as long as needed, Red Cross spokesman Kris Krischano said.
Five adults and two children briefly took refuge at the shelter Saturday afternoon, and at least one woman was expected to spend the night, Krischano said. “They’ve got a comfortable place to be. If they need anything, our folks will get it to them.”
Volunteers were providing food and cots. Licensed mental health professionals would continue to be available if needed to help victims deal with emotional trauma, Krischano said.
The Red Cross was asking anyone with information about victims who need a place to stay to direct them to the shelter.
At the fire scene Saturday, many of the people who lived in the apartment reported repeated problems with flickering lights and inconsistent heating. Doris Lopez, who had lived at the building for two years, said the apartment managers sent tenants a letter warning them not to use Christmas lights. The letter didn’t say why.
The building had undergone recent updates, Lopez said, but she had little heat in hers.
Cassi Lawing said the fire was so hot she could feel it in her apartment a couple doors down the block from the burning building.
“The flames were blowing close to the window. It was so hot,” Lawing said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Robert Kruml and his 6-year-old son stood on the street watching firefighters battle the blaze. Kruml lives next door to the apartment building, but couldn’t be sure from the street whether his home was spared. He waited to hear if the fire had spread. A police officer encouraged Kruml to take shelter on a bus set up for victims.
“It’s hard to take a seat on a bus not knowing if you’ve lost everything,” Kruml said.
Reporter Katya Yefimova contributed to this report.
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.