After fire, residents give their account

Residents of the apartment where the Ashwood Apartments fire started say they knew to call 9-1-1 but panicked.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:00 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

A group of international students walked through crowded streets at Columbia’s Earth Day 2007 festival Sunday selling brownies and Rice Krispie treats and asking for donations to help the victims of last week’s fire at Ashwood Apartments get back on their feet. They raised $1,648.24.

It softened the hard feelings some Japanese students had last week after media reports suggested the students who lived in the apartment where the fire started didn’t have cell phones and didn’t know to dial 9-1-1.

Cooking oil left unattended in the kitchen of Apartment 904 started the fire that displaced 20 students and caused $1.2 million in damage to 1021 Ashland Road on April 16, according to the Columbia Fire Department. It also destroyed $100,000 to $200,000 of the apartments’ contents and injured two Columbia firefighters.

An April 17 news release from the Fire Department said the occupants “lacked the means to notify 9-1-1 as they did not own a cell phone and had no hard wired phone (in) the apartment. The residents appeared unsure as to what to do.”

But Shinya Sendoda, who was visiting his friends’ apartment for dinner when the fire began, tells a different story. He said all three of the students owned cell phones. But none of them had their phones with them when the fire started. He wouldn’t name his two friends, saying they were too emotionally distressed to talk to reporters.

While the three were cooking, oil in a pan caught fire. Sendoda said that in the shock of seeing the fire, the three men did not run for their phones; they ran for their lives.

“I just ran down the hallway and shouted, ‘It’s fire!’ and ‘Call 9-1-1!’ to neighbors and everyone to get out,” Sendoda said.

Sedoda said one student ran to Fire Station No. 3, just across the street, while the two others ran to the apartment complex’s front desk, which had closed an hour earlier. By the time the one man had reached the fire station, someone else in the complex had called 9-1-1.

In any case, the fire burned unusually fast, consuming the entire second floor in two minutes, according to a Fire Department news release. It took less than three minutes for firefighters to arrive. The 30-year-old building was built without fire stops — extra drywall in the attic that slows the spread of fire.

“I would have called 9-1-1 in no time and explained what’s going on,” Sendoda said. “In this case, the Japanese students all know 9-1-1 because of 9/11 and what we see in the movies.”

In Japan, the number to call in emergencies is 1-1-9.

Fire Department Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said it appeared the residents didn’t know what to do, but the news release was nonjudgmental.

“We certainly never look to insult or embarrass,” Sapp said. “We try to do two things in our press releases: one, state the facts as we understand them, and two, educate... But it can be a fine line to walk.”

Sapp said he understands it can be difficult to deal with a fire, especially in a foreign country.

“I’m not sure that I would’ve know what to do in a situation like this if I were in Germany,” he said.

Hiro Mizuno, who organized Sunday’s fundraiser, and two other Japanese students at the event expressed concern over the way their reaction was portrayed. But Mizuno said he felt better after seeing the generosity of the people who came to Earth Day.

“I felt kindness of American people,” Mizuno said in an e-mail. “I was deeply impressed. (Sunday) was one of the best days for me since I have come to the U.S.”

Mizuno said his goal is to raise $2,500 for his friend, who lived in the apartment where the fire started, because the friend may not be able to stay in the U.S. without help.

The international community has supported his efforts. The Missouri International Student Council helped organize the Victims of Ashwood Fire Fund, according to the MU Department of Student Life. The proceeds will help all of the fire victims, not just the Japanese students, according to

The VAFF is planning a benefit dinner later this week, according to Donations may also be made on the Web site.

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