Windermere residents, evacuated after fire, to spend another week waiting

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Dealing with a “major asbestos spill” will keep residents out of the Windermere apartments for at least another week and possibly far longer, according to local officials.

More than 100 residents of the senior housing tower at 5829 S. Datura St. have been locked out of their homes since an early-morning fire on Nov. 17. 

The fire was contained to a single first-floor unit, but sent smoke roiling through the five-story tower. The occupant of the apartment that burned, Michael Mitchell, was found dead inside. At least 13 residents and police officers were injured. Residents have spent the days since scattered in hotels and private homes, with at least nine staying in a hotel paid for by the Red Cross.

Employees will soon begin retrieving some small items for residents on the tower’s third, fourth and fifth floors, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the complex.

Residents of the building’s first and second floors are still out of luck while contamination testing continues, Boian told a meeting of residents at the Littleton United Methodist Church on Nov. 27.

The good news is that initial tests for airborne asbestos came back negative, Boian said.

The bad news is that the fire caused a major disturbance of asbestos in the area around the fire, said Laura Shumpert, a compliance manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), the state health department.

Though residents were initially told that tests that could determine whether residents would be allowed to return to their units — even to retrieve items that were left behind during the pre-dawn evacuation — could come back as early as two days after the fire, each meeting with residents has had the same message: testing will take a little longer.

“We’ve been mandated to do a second round of testing,” Boian told reporters outside the resident meeting on Nov. 27. “I can’t speak to why the state ordered that, but they did.”

The testing is no mystery, Shumpert said. After airborne asbestos tests, many other surfaces must be tested after such a substantial spill before abatement work can begin. CDPHE oversees permitting of asbestos abatement, Shumpert said.

Shumpert offered no timeline for residents to return to the building, saying that will require far more information than is currently available, as well as collaboration with numerous other entities.

In addition to CDPHE, the property owners will work with the City of Littleton’s building department, code enforcement and fire department to determine when or if residents can return, said city spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

Tebo-Orvis will refund residents' rent for the second half of November, Boian said, and will refund security deposits for residents who want to move out.

The trickle of news on the building’s condition was disappointing to Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman, who attended the resident meeting with Narde and Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Valdes.

“That room was full of people who were afraid, who had a lot of questions, who were not getting information," Brinkman said. "Everything they own is out of their reach. Where they’ll live next week is unknown to them. They deserve a lot more answers and direction than they’re getting from the property management group...The way (Tebo-Orvis) is treating our citizens, the information they're giving them, and the lack of resources they're providing — they're failing miserably and we don't appreciate that at all.”

Trying to navigate day-to-day life since the fire “feels like living in a nightmare,” said Sharon Dutkevitch, whose apartment was on the first floor near the fire.

Dutkevitch and her husband live on Social Security, and have had to wrangle their insurance to pay for their hotel and other living expenses, she said.

“They wanted us to submit receipts afterward, but we can't put that much money up front,” Dutkevitch said. She said she and her husband are scrambling to find a new place to live.

The situation is exhausting, said Carla Baker, a caretaker for a blind resident, both of whom were previously evicted from the complex's west tower after a fire in 2016.

“I feel like I lost everything I ever owned, same as last time,” Baker said. “But God's got his arms around us. We have to stick together as family and friends. If we don't have faith, we don't have anything.”

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