COLUMBIA — For Caitlin McEwen, it's scrapbooks and photographs she'll miss most — black and white memories of high school without a digital backup. They were destroyed when her apartment in Ash Street Place went up in flames.
Three weeks after the April 9 fire at the Ash Street Place apartments on North Stadium Boulevard, residents have been able to get into their apartments only briefly, not long enough to figure out what might be salvaged.
Residents from Building 103, which was deemed uninhabitable after the fire, lost belongings that day to fire and water. Then came the rains. And now, asbestos. The fire triggered a safe level of asbestos in the building to become toxic, said Melissa DeCicco, the marketing manager for Mills Apartments, the St. Louis-based company that owns the apartments.
DeCicco said the asbestos has made it dangerous for residents to take back most of their possessions. “Anything of sentimental value, the contractor will try and get back in and have them cleaned for free, but those are the only things that we can really get out,” she said.
None of the residents of the 66 apartments will be able to move back in for a long time, DeCicco said, though how long is unknown. She couldn't say exactly how many residents were displaced.
The fire was caused by a faulty fixture, which Columbia Fire Lt. Brian Davison attributed to electric wiring, according to the department's investigative report. It caused an estimated $450,000 in damage to the building, according to the report. The figure doesn't include possessions lost in the fire.
The Columbia Fire Department deemed six apartments uninhabitable because of direct fire damage. Another seven apartments had extreme damage, though not direct fire damage. McEwen and her boyfriend, Brett Dixon, lived in one of them. They said water is what caused most of their problems.
“The wood paneling under the carpet looks disgusting. It’s starting to warp and mold because it’s getting all this water damage,” Dixon said. “We had no fire damage in our specific apartment, but we have all the water damage from when they were putting out the fire, and we have all the water damage from the torrential amount of rain we’ve gotten since.”
According to the Fire Department's report, Bill Weiman, a maintenance worker, had responded to a call about electrical issues on the first floor of Building 103 the day of the fire. A resident had complained about lights not working properly in the hall, and every time Weiman tried to fix it the attempt would trip the breaker.
The fire started on the third floor. The investigative report does not cite a connection between those incidents.
Elizabeth Picray, who lived at the apartment complex until August 2012, called the Fire Department after hearing about the fire. She told investigators she had raised concerns to Mills Apartments about electrical problems in the building while she was living there.
Picray worked as an electrician in the Navy for six years and said she has extensive training in maintaining electrical systems and preventing electrical fires.
“(The electrical problems) were a recipe for an eventual fire,” she said.
Picray said she didn't receive a response from the company.
DeCicco said she didn't find any complaints of electrical issues in the service request system, but she said the company would continue to research.
Battalion Chief Brad Frazier of the Fire Department said earlier that the apartment lacked manual “pull-down” fire alarms, which would allow residents to be easily alerted to a fire. After Columbia adopted the 2009 International Fire Code in 2011, apartment owners had one year from their initial notification to install these alarms. Ash Street Place was notified Nov. 21, so its owner still had time to install the alarms.
DeCicco said earlier they were in the process of gathering bids to make the upgrade.
But Dixon said he was upset the apartment didn’t notify residents that the building was out of code. “I want to know if I’m not safe," he said.
Dixon, McEwen, their two roommates and two cats, Tonks and Taz, were able to find a new house the week of the incident after staying with friends and then in a motel. They had renters insurance that they said will help defray some of their costs.
McEwen, a senior at MU, said she missed two weeks of classes trying to get her life back together. Her professors have been understanding because of the circumstances. The fire became fodder for a recent English assignment.
"We had to write a piece on travel or how it feels to be a foreigner," she said. "Even though we’re now in a new house, it doesn’t feel like ours. We don’t have any of our stuff, rooms aren’t the same, location isn’t the same, everything is so different. It’s taking a whole lot to adjust to it."
Samantha Sunne contributed to the article.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.