EVERETT — It was shaping up to be a quiet Thursday night for Gary Nelson.
He set down his guitar. He made some dinner, and put on a movie, “The Grinch,” when he heard a sound like somebody scampering across the roof. Nelson cracked the door, saw a bit of smoke and didn’t think much of it. Maybe three minutes later someone came knocking and yelling. He needed to go.
A three-alarm fire destroyed much of the Colby Square Apartments and left one woman with critical injuries.
Twenty people were displaced, days before Christmas.
Two years ago, on the same week Nelson had moved into his first-floor apartment, he almost died in a car crash with an impaired driver. He walks with a cane. But he had no time to grab it at 10:20 p.m. Thursday. He could feel intense heat from the flames as soon as he stepped out the door. He doesn’t know how he found the strength to limp across the street.
Nelson, 45, didn’t look back. He brought nothing but a wallet, a phone, a green Boeing jacket, pajama pants and slippers. An ambulance took him to the hospital. He left the slippers for the apartment manager, who was barefoot and lost everything.
Meanwhile, people were jumping from the second-floor balcony into the bed of a pickup. Some threw pets, medicine and precious belongings to waiting hands in the parking lot.
There’s one escape route for those on the second floor of the 14-unit complex, a stairwell at the bend in the L-shaped building. But that’s where most of the flames were.
“You couldn’t pick a worse spot in the building for there to be a fire,” said Steve Goforth, the assistant fire marshal.
The sound Nelson thought was on the rooftop, he said, might have been exploding oxygen tanks upstairs. Many residents of Colby Square are elderly, with caretakers, walkers and wheelchairs, neighbors said.
One woman suffered life-threatening injuries from smoke inhalation, Goforth said. She was still alive Friday.
Kelly Orton, 27, was driving home from making Christmas cookies at a friend’s house when she saw flames, two blocks north of Everett High School. She helped a police officer rescue an elderly woman in a wheelchair on the first floor, she said.
Firefighters battled heavy smoke and arcing power lines on the back of the building. It took more than an hour to bring the fire under control. Crews climbed ladders with chain saws to cut through walls, to extinguish hot spots in the attic. Onlookers wrapped blankets over their shoulders and huddled beneath the awning at Welch’s Foods, across the street from the fire. Others, including a man who skateboarded by in pajamas, were just curious.
The Red Cross has stepped in to help residents find housing.
Investigators worked through the night trying to confirm or dispel competing rumors about how the fire began. Several witnesses suggested arson. Goforth, however, emphasized Friday afternoon that the cause was still being investigated. He declined to say if he considered it suspicious.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offered to help sift through the wreckage. A computer that held security camera data was damaged by heat in a utility closet. Federal authorities were working to try recover the footage.
Built today, the building wouldn’t be up to fire code. For one thing, there were no sprinklers in the stairwell. The 14-unit apartment complex was finished in 1955, according to county assessor’s records.
Goforth estimated that 25 percent of the building had flame damage, and that almost all of it had water damage. Most of the burns streaking outer walls were on the upper floor, near busted out windows. Charred curtains hung exposed to outside air.
Bill Peter lives a couple of blocks from Colby Square. He watched the blaze while listening to scanner chatter on a phone app. He has lived in the neighborhood since the 1960s. With a home close to a hospital, he’s no stranger to late-night sirens from patrol cars and medics. But early on he could tell this fire wasn’t a routine call. Dozens of blue, red and white lights flashed from fire trucks, ambulances and police cruisers that lined the blocks north and south of the scene. Gray smoke blotted out the sign and lights of the grocery store from a block away, Peter said.
“It was like somebody put up a brick wall,” he said. “It was thick and acidic. I was coughing all the way through it.”
On Friday afternoon, Nelson returned to his home with a cane in hand. He said he’d been staying with his parents. Goforth told him he could not let him go in to see the shape of his room, or to recover photographs of himself when he was little. A moment later the two men recognized each other, old classmates at the high school two blocks away. They laughed and shook hands.
The past few years, Nelson said, have been hard.
“All I can say is I believe in God,” he said. “He saved me the first time from my accident, and this one too. And all my friends made it. That’s all that’s important.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.