High-rise fire victims: 'False alarms were routine'
Fire officials have also revised the tally of injured residents, raising it to at least 18
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — Two of five people who died Sunday morning in a fire at a senior living high-rise in Castle Hills have been identified. City officials, meanwhile, acknowledged that the building did not have a sprinkler system in place.
According to the Bexar County Medical Examiner, Jose O. Gonzales, 73, and Karen Rae Betz, 74, died around 6 a.m. when a fire gutted at least one floor of the 11-story Wedgwood Senior Living apartments in the 6700 block of Blanco Road.
Gonzales — who lived next door to apartment 302, where authorities believe the blaze started — died from smoke inhalation and complications due to cardiovascular disease, according to the medical examiner. The cause and manner of death for Betz, who lived in apartment 701, has not yet been determined.
Karen Betz was a widow who moved from Iowa to San Antonio in 2009, according to her son and daughter, Michael and Michelle Betz.
“She came down here because I'm retired military and I was living here, and she wanted to move to where it was warmer,” Michelle Betz said. “She would bake and cook and take things to her neighbors.”
On Sunday morning, Karen Betz called her sister to say there was smoke in the hallways. The sister then called Michelle Betz.
“There had been false alarms. Sometimes, there would be some smoke. She would report the guy down the hall because he'd be smoking. And so, you didn't know when the alarms went off. This was the real thing,” Michelle Betz said, her voice trailing off.
The siblings said they await the results of the investigation and an autopsy, but added that she will be buried in Iowa and services will be there. Karen Betz's husband, Allan, worked at John Deere in Iowa for several years. He passed away a few years ago.
Authorities have not yet released the identities of the three others who were killed because they had been only tentatively identified and next of kin had not been notified.
Castle Hills Mayor Tim Howell described the fire as the worst catastrophe the city has experienced to his knowledge. In a tweet to his followers Sunday afternoon, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said he is praying for the victims of the fire and expressed thanks to first-responders.
City officials also on Monday revised the number of people reported to have been injured in the fire. The figure has now risen to at least 18 after authorities said that several who had been transported by private ambulance had not been counted when official tallies were previously released. At least one of the injured was in intensive care at one of five hospitals where injured victims were transported.
Laura Jesse, a spokeswoman for the Bexar County Fire Marshal’s Office, said that in addition to those transported to hospitals by SAFD and Leon Valley emergency medical units, several were taken from the high-rise by Acadian Ambulance. Investigators were still trying to determine whether other victims may have transported themselves to hospitals or were transported by family or acquaintances, she said.
The cause of the fire at the 11-floor structure, which has three distinct “wings,” was still under investigation, according to Jesse.
The Castle Hills Fire Department first responded to the blaze Sunday morning and was quickly joined by nearly 50 units from the San Antonio Fire Department and crews from other surrounding areas, including Balcones Heights, Leon Valley and Schertz. Most of the people on the top floor had to be rescued by fire-truck ladders because the electricity was knocked out, causing the elevators to cease operations, said City Manager Diane Pfeil.
Built in 1962, the building was grandfathered before Castle Hills implemented rules requiring sprinkler systems, Pfeil said.
City officials now believe the high-rise housed 250 tenants, a vastly downward revision from the roughly 700 cited on Sunday. Of those, 60 remained unaccounted for as of Monday afternoon, but they were not in the building, Pfeil said. The number of unaccounted for individuals was expected to continue to dwindle as each resident’s emergency contact is called, she explained.
Animal control officers on Monday rescued 10 cats from the building that were returned to owners. Residents still missing medications were directed to City Hall, where on Monday a table was full of pills that had been retrieved by firefighters, placed in baggies and marked with apartment numbers.
An animal control officer was going through the building on Monday trying to find and retrieve some of the residents’ pets. Residents still missing medications were advised to visit City Hall, where a table was full of pills that had been retrieved by firefighters, placed in baggies and marked with apartment numbers.
For medications that emergency responders were unable to retrieve from severely damaged apartments, Legends Pharmacy on Blanco Road has offered to help refill temporary prescriptions if insurance will not pay.
Officials said they don’t know how long it will take before residents are allowed back in the building. In the meantime, essential items such as walkers will be collected for the residents by the Castle Hills Police Department or, if that’s not possible, replacement will be provided by the Red Cross.
Copyright 2014 San Antonio Express-News
All Rights Reserved