One dead, 13 injured, dozens displaced as fire forces evacuation of Littleton apartment building for seniors

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A man is dead, 13 people are injured, and more than two dozen people will spend the night in a shelter after an early morning fire at an apartment complex for seniors on Nov. 17.

A fire broke out in a first-floor apartment at the Windermere apartments at 5820 S. Datura St. shortly after 5 a.m., said South Metro Fire Rescue spokesman Eric Hurst.

The resident of the apartment that burned, Michael Craig Mitchell, died in the blaze, according to a city press release. It was his 70th birthday. The fire's cause has not yet been determined.

Between 25-30 people will stay overnight in the Life Center at 5804 S. Datura St., across from the burned building, according to a press release from the City of Littleton. 

Andy Boian, a spokesperson for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the Windermere, said only 11 would stay overnight. 

Whether residents will be allowed back into the building won't be clear until air quality testing is complete on Monday evening, Boian said. 

Boian said Tebo-Orvis, owned by principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, made sure that residents were provided with food and shelter. The Red Cross was providing food, and the Life Center was providing shelter, Boian confirmed. 

Fire drew large response

At least 100 emergency personnel in 45 fire trucks and ambulances responded, Hurst said.

Crews were able to contain the fire to one unit, Hurst said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Residents were evacuated to the Life Center, and were later moved to the Littleton United Methodist Church nearby, said City of Littleton spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

The Red Cross was assisting in the response, passing out food, coffee, and blankets to residents either huddled in the Life Center or standing outside as a snowstorm moved in.

Firefighters entered apartments through the day retrieve residents’ medications and other belongings.

Residents, many still clad in bathrobes and slippers in the Life Center shelter, described a chaotic scene after the fire broke out. Though fire alarms in hallways sounded, numerous residents said they were difficult or impossible to hear from within their units, with nearly all being alerted to the fire by either neighbors or firefighters pounding on their doors.

One man was injured after jumping off a second-floor balcony because the hallways were too filled with smoke to see clearly, Hurst said. Others had to be rescued from balconies by ladder trucks. Three police officers were transported to the hospital after suffering smoke inhalation while warning residents.

Jayne Cole, who lives on the third floor, said she went for a walk shortly after 5 a.m. and smelled smoke as soon as she stepped on the elevator.

“When I got off on the first floor, the smoke was already rolling against the ceiling,” said Cole, 69. “The alarms weren’t going off yet. I started banging on doors, and yelling fire! Fire! I went looking for a pull-down alarm, but I couldn’t find one. I yelled for people to call 911. The smoke started getting so thick I had trouble breathing.”

Cole said she ran outside to get fresh air, then ran back in to pound on more doors.

“I was praying, ‘Jesus, protect us.’ Finally the alarms started sounding,” Cole said.

Several neighbors called Cole a hero.

“I’m not a hero,” Cole said. “Jesus is the hero.”

Other neighbors roamed the halls waking their neighbors.

“Lots of people here are hard of hearing,” said Pauline Draper, who lives on the fourth floor. “Some are deaf. We banged on doors until the smoke started getting so thick we decided it was time we get out of there.”

Frankie Vizcaino, who lives on the second floor, said she spent two hours on her balcony with her cat and her daughter’s cockatoo, waiting for rescue.

“I got this morning and opened the door, and the halls were filled with smoke,” said Vizcaino, 71. “It was like an inferno.”

The building does not have a sprinkler system, Hurst said, and fire alarms only sound in hallways, not inside individual units.

The Windermere, formerly known as Southview Place Towers, comprises two buildings. The fire this morning was in the building just off Datura Street. An accidental fire in April 2016 forced all residents of the other building, which faces Windermere Street, to find new homes. That structure has since been remodeled and reoccupied.

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