12 injured, more than 100 firefighters battle Texas apartment fire

By Patrick George and Claire Osborn
The Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Several apartment residents jumped out of windows Monday afternoon to escape a four-alarm blaze that was fought by more than 100 firefighters in Northeast Austin.

A dozen people were injured as a result of the fire, including a 2-month-old and a pregnant woman, emergency officials said. None of the injuries was considered life-threatening. The blaze damaged at least 24 units and displaced 300 people because power had to be shut off , fire officials said.

Firefighters arrived at the fire at the two-story Westheimer Regency Apartments at 7020 Grand Canyon Drive about 2:40 p.m. , Austin Fire Department Capt. Rob Bredahl said. The bottom floor of a section of the complex had been consumed by flames when firefighters arrived, and they were unable to start putting out the fire because they first had to rescue several children who were hanging out of second-story windows, Bredahl said.

"The fire really got a head start," Bredahl said. He said the building is an older complex without a sprinkler system. In recent years, sprinkler systems have been required in newly constructed apartment complexes, Chief Harry Evans said.

The fire was soon upgraded to four alarms, with about a third of the entire on-duty Fire Department at the scene, Bredahl said.

A massive black column of smoke was visible from miles away by 3 p.m. Smoke billowed out of the roof of the complex until firefighters got the blaze under control at 6:20 p.m.

Firefighters had worked for hours to put out hot spots and search units for more victims.

Bredahl said Monday night that a cause of the fire had not been determined, nor was a damage estimate available.

Aurora Rangel, who was visiting her daughter when the building caught fire, said she saw a man and a woman drop three children out of a second-floor window before the couple jumped.

"I felt very sad watching that," Rangel said.

Francisco Lunbreras, 37, said he was at work when the fire started and lost everything in his apartment.

"I lost all my belongings, my rent money, my IDs," he said.

Eight adults and four children were taken to area hospitals, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services said in a statement.

Three were injured when they jumped from windows or second-story balconies. They were taken to University Medical Center at Brackenridge. Two people were taken to St. David's Medical Center with minimal burn injuries, EMS said.

EMS spokesman Warren Hassinger said those injured in the fire include a 2-month-old who received burns, a pregnant woman and a child who jumped out of windows, one person with an ankle injury from a fall and a 6-month-old child who suffered heat exhaustion.

One firefighter was taken from the scene with an arm injury that is not thought to be serious, EMS said. Residents of the complex were taken to nearby Reagan High School, where they registered for assistance from the American Red Cross.

The City of Austin is providing a shelter for about 100 people displaced by the fire, said Tom Davis, a spokesman for the Central Texas chapter of the American Red Cross.

Bradley Meltzer , who owns the apartment complex, said he was devastated by the loss of the units, which were built in the 1970s.

He said that he helped the American Red Cross raise $40,000 recently with a celebrity cookoff at a restaurant he owns and that he's afraid that money will disappear quickly because so many people were displaced Monday.

Christina Morris, 28, was among those who lost her apartment. She was driving home on U.S. 183 after a shopping trip when she saw the smoke. She arrived home to watch her apartment burning, she said. Nobody was at home at the time, she said.

Dalia Diaz said she was at home when she was alerted to the fire.

"I don't feel very good right now," said Diaz, who was living with three other adults and a child. "We lost everything."

Copyright 2009 The Austin American-Statesman
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