Elderly Evacuated After Heater Fire

Northway Landing Apartment dwellers got a rude wake up call Tuesday morning, but it prompted them to safety. "The fire alarm went off, and then it went off, and then it went off again, and then it stayed on," said Thomas Fitzgerald, a first floor resident.

The alarm alerted residents of a fire in the third floor room occupied by Margie Welcher. She's glad to be alive. As she was loaded onto a school bus in the frigid temperature, she smiled and said, " Hi! If there's anything to smile about. I'm alive!" The 80-year-old woman's apartment is damaged by fire, smoke, and water. " When I turned my heat on, flames shot up out of the unit, and I turned it off, and it was still burning, so I dashed out of the apartment and went to the apartment next door, [and] asked the lady to call 911," recalled Welcher.

When firefighters arrived, they had reason for concern. " Heavy, heavy smoke on the third floor," said firefighter Terry Westmoreland when describing what he found. A sprinkler system did its job by releasing 90 gallons of water on the blaze.  " Had it 90% out," said Westmoreland.

Firefighters went door to door evacuating the rooms. Forty-five residents clearly learned the purpose of practice fire drills.  "Now we know why. But this has never been like this. This is a well organized thing, I think," expressed Dora Arnold, who sat quietly with her little dog by her side. "They got out pretty orderly. Some of the older people didn't want to go," said Lillian White, who was going to live with her sister for a while.

Many residents are diabetic and were in need of medications and food. Most wore night clothes. "You need another blanket?," offered one firefighter. Firefighters treated the elderly men and women like grandparents. Once everybody had been accounted for, they were loaded up on the school busses provided by the Nacogdoches Independent School District. They were driven to the North Street Church of Christ. The American Red Cross was ready to tend to every immediate need.

Fitzgerald sat in his wheelchair, greeting his neighbors." I used to be a volunteer firefighter, so it really didn't shake me." Whelcher can't exactly say the same. "I feel safe, but I feel very insecure." Her daughters, one in San Diego and one in Indianapolis, aren't close by, but made arrangements for their mom. Most residents are with family. Five have been provided hotel rooms by the Red Cross.

No one can return to the facility before a fire panel is replaced. That could be a couple of days. Also, cleanup crews need some time.  Grogan Cleaners immediately began vacuuming water from each of the three floors. Multiple extractions were necessary. Now, drying equipment is on all the floors. The key is to remove all or as much of the water as possible. The job could take several days.