Apartments charred: 23 people are left to wonder where they’ll go next after fire

  • Bill Sheets<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:31am

LYNNWOOD — Of all the treasures recovered from apartments that burned here on Monday, perhaps nothing was more important than what a firefighter retrieved for Sandra Balcerak.

It was her daughter’s ashes, in an urn.

“I am so lucky what I got to save,” said Balcerak, nearly breaking down in tears Tuesday, May 9, as she spoke outside the fire-damaged building.

Balcerak was briefly hospitalized Monday for smoke inhalation after fire raced through the nine-unit apartment building, 17432 52nd Ave. W., Monday afternoon. No one was seriously injured by the fire.

She told a firefighter about her daughter’s ashes after she emerged from her smoky apartment. The firefighter ran back in to retrieve the urn, she said.

Balcerak was one of 23 people displaced by the fire. She stayed with friends Monday night. Several others were put up in hotels by the American Red Cross, said Coni Conner, disaster services director at the agency’s Everett office.

As of Tuesday, the Red Cross had spent $4,100 on food, clothing and shelter for the displaced people, Conner said. The total could climb to $10,000, she said. The victims are eligible for three nights of hotel lodging, the first month’s rent on a new apartment, bedding and other household items.

A family of eight was put up at the Embassy Suites in Lynnwood by the employer of one of the family members. The company reserved rooms for two nights, said Buddy Andersen, who with his wife and son had been staying with his in-laws and their three children in one of the apartments.

Investigators said the fire was accidentally caused by a lit cigarette dropped on a living room chair. The fire caused an estimated $500,000 in damage, Lynnwood Fire Department spokeswoman Marybeth O’Leary said.

Investigators believe the fire started in a middle two-story unit and spread to the adjacent apartments. Those three apartments were the most heavily damaged by fire, O’Leary said. Smoke and water damaged five other units.

Flames were shooting through the roof by the time firefighters arrived after getting the call at 5:35 p.m. Monday, O’Leary said. It took firefighters from Lynnwood, Edmonds and District 1 about 40 minutes to control the flames, she said. The building was still smoldering two hours later.

During the fire, a front window blew out and several explosions were heard coming from the apartment, neighbors said. The woman in one unit breathes with the aid of oxygen tanks and kept them in the apartment, they said.

“All of a sudden you started hearing ‘boom, boom,’ ” resident Buddy Andersen said.

The woman in the unit had gotten out the back door into a small yard to escape the flames, Andersen said. He and another woman were trying to coax her away from the building, he said. She was without an oxygen tank and said she couldn’t walk, so Andersen and the other woman grabbed her under each arm and carried her into a parking lot, he said.

“We almost dragged her out,” he said. “She was having a hard time breathing.”

The woman was one of the three taken to the hospital, neighbors said. The woman who lived in the unit where the fire started was released Tuesday, Conner said. Balcerak and the other resident were released Monday evening.

The unit where the fire originated was a total loss, O’Leary said.

On Tuesday, several residents were back at the apartments retrieving salvageable belongings. The most heavily damaged rooms were the upstairs bedrooms in the two-story apartments.

Bob Griffin, a network administrator with West Coast Paper of Seattle, said he lost about $30,000 worth of computer equipment. He kept most of it in an upstairs bedroom that he used as a home office.

“I had five laptops; two of them are toast,” he said. Fortunately, he has renter’s insurance with only a $250 deductible, he said.

McGowan and Elliott, who lived next door to the unit where the fire started, carried much of their furniture and other belongings into a parking lot behind their apartment. They lost beds and clothing, but a diary and photo albums made it through unscathed.

Andersen, his wife, Teresa, and their son Daniel, 8, had just moved to Lynnwood from Indianapolis. They were staying with Teresa’s sister, brother-in-law and three children in one of the units.

The family spent Tuesday driving around Lynnwood looking for an apartment without success, Andersen said. The kids, several of whom ran out of the apartment without their shoes, picked up clothing and shoes from Clothes for Kids in Lynnwood. That organization provides free clothing for low-income children in the Edmonds School District.

The Andersens were grateful for the help.

“You hear about it and you see it, but you never think it’s going to happen to you,” Teresa Andersen said.

Diana Hefley, a reporter at the Herald, contributed to this report.

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