Apartment fire causes extensive damage
A fire caused extensive damage at an apartment complex at 619 S. Arch St., Janesville on Wednesday, Aug. 18.
JANESVILLE Sheila Keebler was outside smoking a cigarette Wednesday morning when her neighbor, who is blind, told her she could hear the smoke detector in their apartment building.
Keebler entered Erika Senecal’s apartment and found Senecal’s 3-year-old son near a burning laundry basket.
“He had a flame going in the bedroom. The basket was melting,” Keebler said.
Keebler hustled the child and his two siblings out of the apartment to safety.
Investigators believe the 3-year-old started the fire with a lighter in Senecal’s bedroom, city Fire Marshal Larry Hainstock said. Senecal told him she had left two lighters on the dresser, but firefighters found no remnants of lighters.
Damage to the eight-unit apartment building at 619 S. Arch St. was estimated at $400,000 to $450,000.
Firefighters were dispatched at 9:36 a.m. for a report of a fire in a clothes hamper.
The blaze left 35 people homeless. Three residents were transported to Mercy Hospital for evaluation. All three were released.
The apartment unit where the fire started was completely destroyed. The apartment unit directly above suffered severe fire damage. All other units sustained heat and smoke damage but are salvageable, fire officials said.
Police officer Drew Severson was one of the first on the scene.
“We just evacuated everybody. Everybody responded to the fire alarms. We just helped them with their pets and got them out,” he said.
Severson later saw the fire spread from the ground floor: “It just blew out the window and went straight up.”
Firefighters were on the scene quickly, Severson said.
Firefighters cut down a large tree to get better access to the roof but later withdrew as the fire spread. The peaked roof went up in roaring flames, sending up a large, dark plume that could be seen from many parts of the city.
Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jensen said the building originally was built with a flat roof. A peaked roof was later added, and the double construction hampered firefighting efforts.
One of Keebler’s sons was taken to Mercy Hospital with breathing difficulties. He has asthma, she said.
Keebler said one of her neighbor’s two cats was missing.
Keebler got an update from firefighters and then went to report to Senecal, who is blind: “They’re looking for Bubu, and your room, just so you know, it’s destroyed.”
One or two other cats also were reported missing. After the fire was knocked down, firefighters could be seen giving oxygen to several cats and searching the building for those missing.
Neighbors and evacuees watched the fire’s progress. Among them was Nancy Blumer, who lived in the building with her husband and daughter.
Blumer, who uses a mobility scooter, said her walker and a cane were inside, along with the rest of her belongings, including her yarn.
Blumer said she’s handicapped and can’t do much, but she knits and crochets. She makes blankets and gives them to missionaries who have distributed them around the world. She said she heard from God five years ago that she should make blankets for the needy, and she’s been doing it ever since.
The residents’ most immediate need was a place to stay for the night. Red Cross officials set up a shelter at St. John Vianney Church with cots and comfort kits for approximately 40 people.
While the residents likely will be in shelters for a couple of days, property manager JoAnn Sarow was coordinating new apartments for all residents minutes after arriving on the scene.
“Existing residents come before new ones,” Sarow said. “I’ll call other landlords if I have to. We’re not going to let them hang out to dry.”
Courtney Herringa already has looked at an apartment Sarow offered her. Herringa, who lived in an apartment above the source of the fire, was sleeping when the fire alarm went off.
As Herringa, her fiancé, and another houseguest rushed out the door, they were able to grab only three items: the dog, a cat and an urn containing the ashes of her son. Her smaller cat, Zira, was missing Wednesday.
Police evacuated an identical apartment building next door at 1900 Rockport Road. Police let those residents back into the building at about 11:30 a.m.