Aug 022005
Authors: JP Eichmiller

View our Slide show of the pictures of the Massive Apartment Fire.  The slideshow is every image that editor JP Eichmiller captured on a digital camera while covering the incident.

A Fort Collins woman and her infant daughter were killed and five others injured when a massive fire erupted early Sunday morning in a small apartment building on the city's west side.

The blaze broke out shortly before 5 a.m. at a four-unit building at 1303 West Swallow Road, adjacent to Rocky Mountain High School, Poudre Valley Fire Authority spokesman Jason Mantas said.

This Collegian reporter, who was staying with a friend in an apartment across the street, witnessed the fire and watched as the woman stood on her second-floor balcony and screamed "My baby's inside!" She then retreated back inside, where firefighters later found her and the baby during a rescue attempt.

The outside stairwell leading to the victim's apartment was engulfed in flames, blocking escape.

Several residents said they first heard a car alarm sound and then several booming explosions at the two-story building. Deep black smoke poured from the windows and victims screamed for help. At least three residents jumped from a second-floor unit.

The cause of the fire had not been determined Sunday afternoon but several residents said the flames had reached paint containers and a propane tank being stored at the CARE Housing facility, which is affordable housing for working families.

The fatal victims have been identified as Kris Kueneman, and her baby as Lily, who was less than a year old. The woman's parents arrived on scene about an hour after the fire started and were quickly secluded by authorities at the high school.

"Immediately after arriving on the scene, firefighters attempted to enter the second-floor apartment through a window to rescue the trapped people," according a written statement from the Poudre Valley Fire Authority. "Firefighters located an adult female and a child who were deceased and removed their bodies from the building."

Autopsy results indicated the mother and child died of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the fire.

Four of the injured were treated at a local hospital and released. The fifth victim remained hospitalized, Mantas said. According to residents, that victim was being treated for a broken back.

When police and fire authorities arrived on scene minutes after the first 911 call at 4:44 a.m., they found the apartment complex consumed by fire. Several police officers immediately ran door-to-door and yelled for residents to evacuate to the nearby high school. Officers also kicked in doors of residents who didn't respond. Several dozen people were evacuated from several surrounding apartment complexes and houses.

A total of 10 fire companies with more than 30 firefighters responded to the scene and spent an hour knocking down the blaze, Mantas said.

The complex was completely destroyed in the fire and Red Cross officials and CARE representatives were assisting the survivors with food and clothes and places to stay. Several young children who escaped with little or no clothing on could be seen laying on the ground or walking around in blankets provided by ambulance workers and neighbors.

Apartment resident Drew Watson, who lived in a bottom-floor unit, said he was awoken by the car alarm and then realized smoke was filling his home.

Watson said he got out of bed and walked toward his living room, where the ceiling collapsed in front of him in flames. He then rushed back to his bedroom, grabbed his girlfriend and her two young children and the family crawled out a bedroom window and ran away from the complex.

"We're just glad we got out with my babies," said Watson's girlfriend, Autumn Rusch. As she stood next to Watson at dawn in the high school courtyard, Rusch was clad in a green Colorado State University sweatshirt and a pair of flannel sleeping pants. Like many residents, she fled in her pajamas.

Prior to firefighters arriving on scene, this reporter watched three people – two women and a man – leaning out of windows in their second-floor apartment, black smoke billowing from behind them.

As this reporter yelled at them to jump, the unidentified man leapt about 15 feet to the ground. Wearing only a pair of shorts, the man then yelled up to his girlfriend, who then jumped to the ground, landing on her side.

The second woman hesitated but then slid her leg out the window and allowed herself to fall. While on the ground, she was coughing and heaving, unable to move with her own power. This reporter dragged her several feet away.

Megan Smith, 30, who lives in apartment across the street from the blaze, said she heard the car alarm and then walked to her living room, where the entire room was glowing orange. She looked through a window and saw the adjacent apartment building in flames.

She called 911.

"After I had awoken my kids and gotten them dressed, I was just standing in the doorway watching the fire, wondering what the hell to do when a female officer ran up to me and yelled to evacuate," Smith said.

Smith said the woman who was killed in the fire had moved into the complex within the last couple of months. She was a single mom living there with her baby, Smith said. Smith also said Kueneman had worked at the Subway sandwich shop inside the Foothills Mall on College Avenue for more than six years.

Smith also voiced concerns over how many residents were alerted to the fire. "Why were so many of us awoken by the car alarms," said Smith. "What happened to the smoke alarms?"

Bridget Eldridge and Ryan Maier also contributed to this story.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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