TERRE HAUTE —
A cause for a Thursday evening fire at Garfield Towers that displaced residents and sent several to hospitals may not be determined until late Monday, investigators said. Meanwhile, most residents of the 152-unit building were allowed to return home Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, one resident remained in critical condition Friday in the burn unit at Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis after being airlifted there because of his injuries.
Investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Terre Haute Police Department searched inside the Terre Haute Housing Authority building on Friday morning, looking for a cause and at damage to the structure.
Several residents milled around outside the building, awaiting word of when they could return home, and others waiting to find out about pets left inside the building during the emergency evacuation.
At 2:30 p.m. Friday, residents of all floors except the sixth were allowed to return home, said Jeff Stewart, executive director of the housing authority. The sixth floor residents were being moved into area motels.
Those can stay in motels until the extensive fire and smoke damage is repaired, he said. The repairs may take a few weeks.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, an emergency shelter that had been set up in the gymnasium of Terre Haute North Vigo High School was closed after residents were relocated to longer-term housing. The Wabash Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross was continuing to work with individuals unable to return to their homes.
Alarms warned of fire
The sound of smoke alarms at Garfield Towers has become such a frequent occurrence that some residents told a reporter they ignored the fire warning on Thursday evening, even as fire trucks were rolling up to the property.
“You get jaded after a while,” Donald Newell said of the frequent alarms as he sat at a picnic table outside the seven-story building on Friday morning.
Other residents agreed that false alarms are common, and are sometimes the result of people “being bored” so they pull an alarm for excitement.
Newell said he looked into the hallway outside his fourth-floor apartment after hearing the alarm, but saw no smoke and nothing out of the ordinary happening.
“I thought it was under control,” Newell said, adding that he went to bed, put on a pair of headphones and was awakened a while later by someone banging on his door telling him to evacuate the building.
Tina Bailey, who was at a nearby housing unit helping a friend move, sustained an injured arm on Thursday when she tried to help some residents evacuate the building.
“There [were] people hollering who needed help getting out,” Bailey said.
She wanted to check on a friend who has trouble getting around, Bailey said, and ran into the building and began banging on his door to get his attention.
Bailey said she was helping her friend down a stairwell as firefighters were trying to get up the stairwell to reach the higher floors.
Neighbors aid residents
William Adkins, 17, lives with his mother next door to the apartment building, was another person who helped bring residents out of the building to safety.
“I was in my room, and I heard the alarms,” said Adkins, a junior at Terre Haute North Vigo. “Most of the time, it’s a false alarm, so I don’t pay attention to it.”
But when he saw several fire trucks pulling up outside, Adkins decided to see if he could help. He and some friends approached a stairwell and saw people needing help. They helped get people outside to the grassy area and called for emergency medical help when needed.
“You never know when something like that is gonna happen,” Adkins said.
The first woman that he and his friends helped out of the building could not stand by herself, so they got her a chair from Adkin’s back yard and stayed with her until medics arrived.
“We sat her in the chair because she had a really hard time breathing,” he said.
Several of the residents were taken away from the scene to the nearby Maple Avenue United Methodist Church where they were fed and sheltered until other arrangements could be made.
School opens shelter space
Danny Tanoos, superintendent of Vigo County schools, was at a retirement banquet for employees when he learned about the fire and the need for emergency shelter for several residents.
Tanoos said he made an emergency call to staff, and within five minutes there were school bus drivers responding to the high school to provide transportation for those needing to be taken to the Terre Haute North Vigo High School gymnasium.
Tanoos himself went to the scene with some staff members and buses.
“When we got there, we saw people everywhere. Some at the church. Some in the street. So we took control of getting people organized and brought them here,” Tanoos said.
School staff took counts of people and put name stickers on them. They then arranged for food from organizations for the 55 to 60 people who were taken to the school. Cots were brought in, along with reserve deputies from the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department for security.
“The paramedics were here all night because a lot of the residents didn’t have their medications with them,” Tanoos said.
As of Friday morning, the scene at the high school had calmed down considerably. Fortunately, Friday was a no-school day for the students because it was a built-in snow day that wasn’t used during the winter.
The school corporation staff has had experience sheltering area residents at the school in the past. An ice storm two winters ago resulted in several people being sheltered in schools for a few days.
That experience paid off.
“It was actually like clockwork, what my staff did last night,” Tanoos said, commending North principal Stacy Mason and assistant principal David Bray, along with other staff, bus drivers and a school board member who pitched it.
Volunteering where needed
Stephanie Land, emergency services director for the Wabash Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, was at the high school on Friday to handle needs as they arose.
“We’ve been working with local churches to help people with clothing assistance, and with Goodwill Industries to get people help,” Land said.
“The school corporation has been wonderful,” she said. “We can’t say enough good things about them.”
With every emergency or disaster, the Red Cross volunteers learn a little more about how to shelter people, she said.
Surveying the damage
Back at Garfield Towers, housing authority director Stewart said that after the investigators were done inside the building, his staff would assess the damages and make any repairs they could before residents were allowed to return.
Stewart said it was likely that some of the entry doors to apartments were broken in an attempt to get to residents who were disabled or unaware of the fire.
People who lived in Garfield Towers are either elderly or disabled, he said.
In response to some residents’ concerns that people who use wheelchairs or other assistance to get around were allowed to live on the upper floors of the building, Stewart said it is against federal regulations to segregate people based on their disabilities or status. While it may be more convenient for those people to live on the lower floors of the building, Stewart said, it is unlawful to designate where they live within the building.
Some residents were also concerned about pets and service animals who remained inside the building as of Friday.
“We’ve just had wonderful help from a variety of agencies last night and today,” Stewart said, referring to the Terre Haute Humane Society and others who responded to the scene.
Kitty in the window
A relative of a seventh-floor resident, however, was unhappy with how the animal residents of the building were treated.
Charles Barth said he arrived to pick up Curley, his brother’s dog, when he learned of the fire, but was told the animals had to remain inside, even after the fire was out.
Barth said his brother, Terry, who was in the hospital at the time of the fire, depends on Curley, a cockapoo, as a service dog to help with Terry’s diabetes.
Sheryl Shaver of the humane society was also at the scene Friday morning, returning after a late night at the scene Thursday.
Shaver said she understands that getting the people out of the burning building was the first priority, but she said leaving the animals alone inside the building was not good.
She and others pointed up to a fourth-floor apartment where a cat sat inside a screened window, looking at the activity on the ground and watching a bird that fluttered to a nearby ledge.
Shaver said she was worried about smoke inhalation for the pets who were left in the building. Five cats and a dog were taken to the shelter Thursday night.
Collecting evidence on cause
How the fire started is a question that investigators will be asking several residents in the coming days.
Lt. Edward Tompkins, arson investigator for the Terre Haute Police Department, said that the resident who is now in the burn unit at Wishard Hospital was found in the lounge area where the fire started.
It was unknown if that person knew how the fire started, Tompkins said.
He said the fire cause could be something as simple as a dropped cigarette.
The victim was able to walk out of the building with firefighters, Tompkins said, and he was talking for a while.
“The fire department did an excellent job getting people out,” he said.
Both hospitals treat injured
The injured were first transported to Union Hospital, where many appeared to be suffering from smoke inhalation.
Union spokesperson Kim Perkins said that eight people were taken to Union on Thursday night, and four of those were admitted to the intensive care unit. Their status was unavailable Friday afternoon.
After Union reached a limit on people who could be treated from the incident, patients were diverted to Regional Hospital, according to the local emergency plan.
Jason Crouch, Regional director of emergency services, said six patients were treated there and all were released.
Both hospitals enacted their emergency preparedness plans, calling in additional staff to assist with patient treatment and placing other staff on standby.
“I felt like things were calm,” Crouch said of the Regional response. “Everyone knew what to do.”
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.
How you can help
You can help the victims of the Garfield Towers fire and other disasters by making a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief.
• visit www.redcross.org.
• call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
• send a check to the Wabash Valley Chapter, 700 S. Third St., Terre Haute IN 47807.