Fire damages several units at Bellingham apartment complex

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 6, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Several families lost their homes and possessions to a three-alarm fire at a Bellingham apartment complex Monday afternoon, May 6.

No residents of Sunset Pond, 1301 Woodstock Way, Building E, were hurt. But flames decimated the third floor, and damage from smoke and water rendered the entire 12-unit building unlivable.

On Monday morning, Marion Jewell pinned up a banner and gift-wrapped a present for her boyfriend, Tony Zapien. It was his 29th birthday.

"I'd set it all up, so he'd come to this nice surprise," Jewell said, with a trace of a smile.

Their 20-month-old son, Ezra, had fallen asleep in a bedroom at 1:18 p.m., when Jewell heard "a weird noise." She looked out to her neighbor's balcony and saw heavy smoke. So she scooped up Ezra and rushed outside.

"I just panicked and knew we had to get out of the home as fast as I could. I couldn't think straight," said Jewell, 26. "I've cried a few times. I'm trying not to, for (Ezra)."

Zapien drove home from work minutes later to find they'd lost everything: old photos, Ezra's baby book and many other mementos that can't be replaced. Their cat, Kiki, remained unaccounted for. According to the Bellingham Fire Department, several other pets may not have gotten out.

Just before firefighters arrived, construction workers - who were building another apartment complex just uphill, to the south - saw smoke and ran to the burning structure. They shouted from the parking lot and knocked on every door, urging residents to get out, witnesses said.

Crews from the Bellingham Fire Department, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, South Whatcom Fire Authority and Whatcom Fire District 8 responded to the scene. Dirty, yellow plumes of smoke clouded the sky. It could be seen from miles away.

Firefighters were on scene for hours, first putting out the blaze and then ensuring it wouldn't restart.

Fire investigators believe the blaze started at a unit on the east side of the building, on the top floor, next door to Jewell's apartment. The flames spread westward mostly through the building's attic. Witness interviews led the fire department to focus on a charcoal grill as a possible point of origin, said Bellingham Fire Assistant Chief Bill Newbold.

Neighbors saw the tenant, a young man, running downstairs barefoot. Six or seven minutes later, flames broke through the roof, according to witnesses.

The Bellingham Fire Department said the building was compliant with fire codes at the time of its construction, when attic spaces didn't need to have alarms or sprinklers installed. It is one of 11 buildings at Sunset Pond apartments.

Jessica Melrose, 33, a full-time student at Whatcom Community College, heard a loud ringing in her unit on the first floor, where she lives with two daughters and a cat.

"I thought it was a kid pulling a fire alarm," she said.

Later, her boyfriend went back into the building - when he probably wasn't supposed to, Melrose admitted - to rescue the wet and frightened cat, Bailey, from under the bed.

Dozens of neighbors and bystanders gathered outside in the nearly 80-degree heat and watched flames consume the roof.

The exact number of people displaced by the fire remained unclear. Case workers with the Mt. Baker Chapter of the American Red Cross were making arrangements for Building E tenants.

Charles Jackson, 46, had just helped his partner, Christine Ross, to move in two months ago, so they could start a life together. He got the news of the fire while he was at work at Brooks Manufacturing.

"Of course," he said, fighting back tears, "you don't want to believe it."

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