High-rise residents ready to head home after fire

Power restored to parts of Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments after blaze

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As crews continue to work to clean up and repair damage from an early morning fire Monday, more than 250 residents of Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments on the city's Southside are awaiting the news that they can return home.

According to the townhouse's website, crews worked through the night cleaning up water damage that firefighters said was caused by the building's sprinkler system.

Watch JFRD video from inside high-rise

The I-TEAM learned that the system had failed an inspection as recently as Nov. 30, but a spokeswoman for Cambridge Management Inc., which manages the property, said that the building's sprinklers worked as intended when a fire broke out around 3:30 a.m. Monday.

The complex is on Philips Highway just North of Emerson Street.

The management company said it's not clear when homes will be ready for residents to return, but power was restored about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to common areas and floors 1-6, 9 and 10. The fire broke out on the eighth floor.

The company said crews are working to restore power and building services to the rest of the building so residents can come home.

After the fire ignited on Monday, hundreds of residents were evacuated from the building Monday, and JFRD took five people to area hospitals. None appeared to be critically hurt, fire officials said.

The fire marshal said none of the injuries were directly from the fire but rather from smoke inhalation and pre-existing medical conditions.

VIDEO: Experts show Vic Micolucci how to escape a house fire

A firefighter was also injured, but those injuries are also believed not to be severe.

The fire marshal turned the building back over the Cambridge Management about 6:30 p.m. Monday, allowing crews to begin repairs.

In the meantime, residents await news at a temporary shelter set up by the Red Cross at Faith United Methodist Church on Spring Park Road, about a mile from the apartments.

Management said those whose apartments sustained serious damages will be contacted individually with more information. Everyone else is asked to wait until they're told they can return to the complex, for their own safety.

That means more than 100 seniors are about to spend a second night at an unfamiliar place.

The residents said they are thankful to the church for housing them and to the Red Cross for supplying them with food, clothes and more.  Everyone at the shelter got at least two pairs of clothes that were donated Tuesday, and pizza and Italian food have been delivered, as well.

Pamela Sands, a bilateral amputee said she didn’t get out of the building Monday until nearly nine hours after the fire. She compared the feeling to her anxiety on 9/11.

“It was horrible, just horrible,” she said. “They would open the door as they were going down and would say, 'Are you all right in there? Are you still OK?' and I’m like, 'I’m OK. Go ahead, get everybody out,' because I didn’t know how bad the fire was. All I knew was there was a fire on the eighth floor.”

Mark Baker, who lives on the second floor of the high-rise, said he’s never experienced anything like this. 

“I’ve been crying. I’ve been stressed. My anxiety is like way up here,” Baker said. “It was just a total nightmare.”

Baker is one of more than 100 residents who doesn’t know what’s next.

The Red Cross is being told by management and the fire marshal that they’re hoping to get residents back in Wednesday or Thursday, but residents said they don’t know if they’ll be able to return for good or just collect their belongings. They're hoping at the very least to be home by Christmas.

“They were talking about moving us back in, but I don’t see how they’re going to do that, because the apartments are full of water,” Baker said. “My apartment -- I’ve got water in the bedroom and the hallway and the bathroom. It’s a mess in there. I’ve never been through this before I’ve never been through a disaster.”

Baker said a maintenance worker told him Monday that the fire started in a newer AC unit. The fire marshal is still investigating but believes the fire was accidental and did in fact start in a cooling/heating unit. 

I-TEAM: Are other high-rises for seniors at risk?

The I-TEAM has requested inspection reports for 31 senior living facilities in Duval County, including a number of high-rises (see map below).

Among them are the Cathedral Properties' three large buildings, which are fairly prominent downtown. 

The Cathedral Tower on North Newnan Street in Downtown Jacksonville was the site of a fire in 1994 that panicked many who lived in the high-rise.

A 911 call from that fire, which sent 13 people to the hospital, illustrates the scary situation.

Operator: Ma'am, what's your number?
Caller: 1803. My room is full of smoke.
Operator: OK ma'am, we will get up to you. I need you to get down on the floor.
Caller: I am on the floor, and I got towels.
Operator: You got towels around the door?
Caller: Yes, the smoke is awful …  Oh, God, I don't want to go this way.

That fire was a wake-up call and a lot has changed since then, management said. 

A manager told the I-TEAM that on top of annual fire inspections, the company does quarterly inspections for the sprinkler system. When equipment needs repair, they also have a company that comes in and handles “fire watch” until the repairs are complete. 

The employee on watch walks the halls every half hour to check for any signs of smoke or fire.

Jacksonville Fire Chief Kurt Wilson said in June that he's confident the department can handle a high-rise fire in Duval County.

“Anything is possible. What we do is we are extremely proactive in our Fire Marshal's Office,” Wilson said. “We inspect every commercial building annually. That includes high-rises, high-rise apartments and buildings.”

The I-TEAM will be combing through those inspection reports once they're released, looking to see if the buildings are up to code and what steps are being taken to fix any issues.

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