Midtown Anchorage apartment fire kills 2, displaces many

Firefighters put out the smoldering blaze at Royal Suites Lodge in midtown Anchorage on Feb. 15, 2017. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

A midtown Anchorage apartment building caught fire early Wednesday (Feb. 15) morning, killing two people and injuring 16 others. A portion of the three-story Royal Suite Lodge on Minnesota Drive in midtown has collapsed from the blaze, and the cause is currently unknown.

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Late Wednesday (Feb. 15) morning, firefighters were still using chainsaws to cut away smoldering boards and spraying down portions of the building with water.

Royal Suite residents Tequila Parker-Hernandez and her husband Juan stood in the complex’s neighboring building, which was untouched. They lived in a first-floor apartment in the burned structure. They first heard an alarm around 2:30 in the morning, she said.

“And we woke up. I opened the front door and down on the far end of the building, from the floor all the way up to the third floor was engulfed in flames. So we grabbed a couple things and went out to the parking lot,” Parker-Hernandez said. “And the fire just spread.”

The Anchorage Fire Department said 34 fire trucks and engines responded to the blaze. 16 people were injured, including some who jumped out of third-story windows. At least four people were in critical condition. Two others died, including 38-year-old Teuaililo G. Nua.

Parker-Hernandez said they’re lucky because flames didn’t reach where they live, so they’ll just have to deal with water damage. She’s optimistic.

“You have to be, you know? Everything is inside your house. That’s everything,” Parker-Hernandez said, adding she feels horrible for others who lost even more.

Anchorage Fire Department Deputy Chief Jodi Hettrick said it may not actually be possible for people to retrieve their belongings. By mid-afternoon, parts of the roof and some of the walls had collapsed, so it’s unclear which parts of building are structurally sound, if any.

“Damage at this end can definitely affect the stability at that end,” Hettrick said, pointing to the heavily burned area closer to Minnesota Drive then to an area where fake plants still hung by the doors. “It may look like from the outside that it’s safe to go in and it’s just water damage, where there’s actual damage the flooring and the wall structure. And we just can’t put anybody in danger.”

As of midday, the building was not stable enough for fire investigators to enter and identify the cause of the fire. Hettrick said it’s hard to estimate when they will be able to go in, and they may have to pull down parts of the building with heavy equipment.

Some of the residents were taking shelter at the Spenard Rec Center on Wednesday morning, where the Red Cross had set up cots and was distributing food and some basic clothing.

Red Cross representative David Williams said the shelter will likely run for two to three days, and they’re helping residents connect with service providers to make longer-term plans.

“When people have gone through a loss like this, very often there is a sense of loss of control of their lives in general,” Williams said. “If they can start making decisions about where they’re moving on with their lives, then that’s helping them recover.”

Royal Suite resident Robert Thomas and his family said they want to find a new place as quickly as possible, but it may be hard to come up with the rent money. He explained they had only been living in the apartment for two weeks. Before that, he and his girlfriend had spent about two months living at Brother Francis Shelter.

“We lost everything, and we were saving and scrimping just to get in,” Thomas said. “And now two weeks later, we’re already out again. So we’re starting over completely from scratch.”

Thomas said when the fire alarm first went off, he didn’t think there was an actual fire because there had been a false alarm just last week.

“So we were kinda taking our time then the manager came by and was banging on the door saying ‘This is not a drill. There really is a fire. Please get out, get out, get out!'” Thomas recalled.

They escaped the building and eventually took shelter in the Center Bowl. Firefighters had broken open the door to get people out of the snow. Many had run out of the apartments just in their pajamas and didn’t have shoes on. Soon after People Mover Buses arrived at the scene to provide protection and eventually took people to the Rec Center.

The Hernandez’s stayed behind at the complex. They plan to move into one of the empty units in the building where they’re taking shelter. The night of the fire was their tenth wedding anniversary. It’s the first time they’ve celebrated it in Alaska; they moved up eight months ago from Puerto Rico.

Juan Hernandez said living in the state has always been a dream of his, and this fire is just a bump in the road.

“Not a regret in the world moving here, huh?” Tequila asked her husband.

“It’s part of living. You just gotta go on,” Juan said.

The 40 year-old building contained 30 units. Its unknown how many people were present during the fire.

If you are trying to find someone who may have been impacted, call the Red Cross at 230-4472. Those who were displaced by the fire can contact the Salvation Army Family Services Unit (907-277-2593) for thrift store vouchers to replace lost belongings.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne