It was a perfect storm of circumstances: oil left unattended in a wok, apartment residents who spoke little English and didn’t know to call 9-1-1, and a building that lacked fire stops.
The fire that destroyed building 9 of Ashwood Apartments on Monday night burned through the roof and into the second floor within two minutes. It injured two firefighters, left 20 students temporarily homeless and caused an estimated $1.2 million in damage. The value of the destroyed contents of the eight apartments in the building was estimated at $100,000 to $200,000, according to the Columbia Fire Department.
“We know that there was a delay in notification to the Fire department, so the fire burned uncontrolled for an unknown period of time,” said Steven Sapp, Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief. Sapp said a language barrier may have contributed to a delay of the report and made initial interviews difficult.
“The occupants are, we believe, of Asian descent and do not speak English as a first language,” he said. “It was hard to initially communicate.”
Apartment 904, where the fire started when cooking oil in a wok ignited, wasn’t equipped with a phone, and no one in it had a cell phone. The three residents made two trips to the apartment complex’s office before they reported the fire. By that time, other residents had called 9-1-1.
Sapp also said fire-stopping measures that slow or contain the spread of a fire weren’t required 30 years ago when the apartments were built. Newer apartments are built with 5/8-inch drywall in the attic because it keeps fires better compartmentalized. There was no drywall in the attic of 1021 Ashland Road.
Sapp said he talked to the Protective Inspections Division of Columbia’s Public Works Department, the city’s building regulators, on Tuesday morning about doing a comparison of the way fire spreads in new buildings versus older ones.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important building and fire codes are in keeping us safe,” he said.
Two firefighters were burned at the bottom of a wooden staircase that led to the burning apartment.
“My lieutenant said the next thing he knew fire was blowing down the stairs at them,” Sapp said. “They began to retreat before he realized he was burned.”
He said the structural firefighting or bunker gear “doesn’t allow us to come into direct contact with fire” and isn’t fireproof. It protects primarily from heat and steam produced by fighting the fire. The suits burn at 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, Sapp said.
One firefighter suffered minor burns on his back and shoulder; the other, to his arms and ears. They were taken to University Hospital, treated and released. Sapp said he could not release the names of the injured firefighters for insurance concerns. He said he couldn’t recall the last time firefighters were burned on the job.
Sapp said the division chief was the first on the scene after receiving a call at 6:09 p.m.. He only saw light smoke — what he thought was a small apartment fire. By the time the division chief walked around the building, the entire second floor was engulfed in flames.
It took two minutes for the fire to burn through the roof, according to the press release issued by the Fire Department.
Sapp said the fire was extinguished at 10 p.m. It required five pumper trucks, two ladder trucks, a heavy rescue squad and an air truck to put it out.
The first pumper on site sustained heat damage, as did two privately owned vehicles.
The Boone County Fire Protection District also used a “grass rig” to spray water on the brush behind the building.
“We were concerned initially that it would catch fire,” Sapp said. “It didn’t happen most likely because of all the wet weather lately.”
Of the eight units destroyed by the fire, only two were covered by renter’s insurance.
The apartment where the fire started has insurance from a Japanese company, said Hiro Mizuno, a friend of the apartment’s Japanese occupants. He said he knows the man who started the fire, but didn’t know his full name.
Mizuno said the insurance will cover part of the accident, but most likely won’t be enough for the student to stay in the United States. Mizuno is organizing a group of Japanese students to help raise $1,000 or $2,000 to help cover his costs.
“We’re very small,” he said. “We cannot get enough help by only Japanese students.” Mizuno said there are fewer than 30 Japanese students in Columbia.
Mizuno said his friend lost everything in the fire — his passport, textbooks and computer.
All of the residents in the building were students, and Sapp said many are missing what they need to study for finals.
“We really try to educate people as much as we can that if you are renting, the landlord’s insurance will not cover the contents,” Sapp said. He said many people don’t investigate the cost of renter’s insurance because they would rather spend their disposable income on something else. But renter’s insurance isn’t expensive.
For example, Sapp said, his daughter bought renter’s insurance through her automobile insurer. It cost $22 for $15,000 worth of coverage.
“If you think of putting everything out in the driveway for a garage sale, you’re not going to get a lot of money,” Sapp said. “When you have to replace everything new, you ask what is it going to cost me to replace those chairs, flat-screen TV, stereo, my computer, my iPod. It adds up.”