Huge Fire Hits Colorado Springs Apartment Complex

Fire Expected To Burn All Day

A five-alarm fire forced scores of people from their apartments in Colorado Springs early Tuesday and the fire was expected to burn all day.

Investigators said the rapid spread of the fire was "highly suspicious" and they don't know if everyone got out OK.

"Until we can get a good handle on how many occupants were in this complex, we're not going to be sure we got everybody out," said Lt. Julie Stone of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

The blaze was first reported at about 12:45 a.m. at the Castle West Apartments at Academy Boulevard and Uintah Street.

When firefighters arrived, they said some residents were hanging out of windows. Some of those people jumped from third-floor windows to escape the smoke and flames.

"We had to go to a rescue mode right off the bat," said Lt. Jeff Sievers of the Colorado Springs Fire Department. "We had approximately 62 people that we took out of windows and off balconies, by ladder. We are still trying to account for everyone that was in the apartments."

Sievers said apartment residents scattered after the fire, some going to a shelter, some to friend's homes and they don't have a good accounting for how many escaped. He asked that all residents return to the apartment complex and check in Tuesday so that they could make sure everyone is accounted for.

Residents said they had little time to react once the flames broke out.

"I opened the door and smoke was just pouring everywhere. I had to close my eyes and feel my way out. That's how bad it was," said Melvin Helton. "People were jumping off the third floors, out of the windows. It was the only way you could get out."

"People were throwing kids out of the windows," said James Evans, who lives in a third-floor apartment in the complex.

"I just woke up and it was on fire -- everything was on fire," he told The Gazette. He said he tried to lower himself to the ground outside the building by a television cable, but the cable snapped and he fell, suffering an injury. It was not clear how badly he was hurt or how far he fell.

"People upstairs above us on both sides were getting out with ladders. One man jumped from his window," said tenant Terry Moses.

Memorial Hospital Central said 23 people were taken there with sprained ankles, broken bones and other injuries, but none appeared to be life-threatening.

One firefighter also suffered a minor injury, Sievers said.

At least three buildings were destroyed by the fire, comprising about 130 units

Sievers said the fire would likely burn for 12 hours because it is too big to put out quickly.

"My life is in that building," said tenant Eddie Smith. "It was late at night. People were asleep. A lot of people don't even answer their door. You don't know who is at your door. I'm just praying for the ones that may be dead and I'm praying that everyone got out of there."

Firefighters concentrated on protecting neighboring properties to make sure they didn't catch fire. Firefighters were also hampered in battling the blaze by sub-freezing temperatures that quickly froze water from fire hoses, coating the area around the fire in ice.

Two firefighters went inside the complex for the first time Tuesday in search of unsafe walls that they said may need to be knocked down. Fire crews said there are still hot spots inside the building and it is very dangerous and unstable.

They said they will use heavy equipment to go through to check for unsafe walls before any preliminary or secondary searches can begin, which they said could take days.

People evacuated from their apartments were taken to the Springs of Life Church next door to the apartment complex and were being cared for by the Red Cross. Some 134 tentants were left homeless from the fire.

Academy Boulevard was closed to traffic between Galley and Palmer Park. Uintah was also closed between Potter Drive and Chelton, and neighborhood streets near the apartment complex were shut down.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined and investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called in to help determine what started it.

Fire investigators said it's unusual for a fire to have spread as quickly as it did. They said they have a general idea of what started it but they aren't sure if it started in one place.

Matthew Horace of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said early damage estimates were at $6 million.

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