Jacksonville high-rise residents spend Christmas in hotels after fire

Trace amounts of asbestos found during cleanup at Townhouse Apartments

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 250 people spent Christmas in local hotels after a fire forced them to evacuate a Southside Jacksonville high-rise and trace amounts of asbestos was later found in the building, last week.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber typically found in older buildings that can become airborne and cause health problems, like mesothelioma and even lung cancer, if inhaled.

The discovery complicates an already challenging clean-up process for the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, which houses senior citizens.

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Cambridge Management, which manages the property, told News4Jax that a licensed asbestos cleanup crew is being brought in to get the building up to code and the cleanup process will be “aggressive” so that residents can return as soon as possible.

In the meantime, the shelter set up by the Red Cross at Faith United Methodist Church closed Friday, and evacuated residents were moved into hotel rooms.

“Ensuring the safety and comfort of our residents is our top priority as we continue to address the situation at our facility,” management said in a statement.

It's unclear when they will be able to go home.

“Our full focus remains on minimizing the impact to our residents,” the statement said. “We recognize the hardship this situation presents, particularly as we enter the holiday season, and are working to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”

But some residents told News4Jax that the management company hasn't been keeping them informed, and they're frustrated.

Resident Bernice Kendrick told News4Jax, two days before Christmas, she received a letter from Cambridge Management, stating residents would be provided free JTA transportation every day including Christmas. However, Kendrick said she has not seen any buses to heard anything else.

News4Jax reached out to Cambridge Management and JTA for comment, but is not expecting a response until after Christmas.

"The big frustration is not having any real information about what’s going on. Cambridge seems like it’s dragging its heels," resident Teddy Rudd said. "I don’t know whether they’re trying to bury information, but we’re not really getting information."

Rudd said the timeline for when they can return keeps changing.

"Not being able to have a normal life and know when things are going to get back to normal. News keeps going around that it's 24 hours, but then it's 48 hours, and then it's 72 hours," Rudd said. "Who knows what’s going on?"

Crews have been working to clean up water, smoke and fire damage after a fire broke out around 3:30 a.m. Monday on the eighth floor of the complex, which is on Philips Highway just North of Emerson Street.

Five residents and a firefighter were injured, but they are expected to be OK. The fire marshal said none of the injuries were directly from the fire but rather from smoke inhalation and pre-existing medical conditions.

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

Power was restored to most floors and the common areas by 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Crews were inspecting each unit for safety Wednesday before residents could return to the building.

The fire marshal is still investigating but believes the fire was accidental and started in a cooling/heating unit.