Careless “midnight chef” flamb?©s SE Division St. apartment building; displaces 21

Strike 1: Live without a working smoke detector. Strike 2: Leave a big pot of cooking oil on the stove – set to high temperature – and leave the room …

Now renting? We think not. The two-alarm fire, caused by a careless cook, gutted this apartment building, chasing 21 people out into the cold, spring night.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Just before 1:00 a.m. on May 7, most people in the apartment building on SE 124th Avenue, just north of Division Street, were deep asleep. Little did they know they would soon be leaving their homes – in the dead of night, with only the clothes on their backs – never to return.

However, one “chef” in the building decided the midnight hour was a good time to do some deep-fat frying.

Unattended pot of oil explodes into flames
Authorities would not disclose the name of the early-morning cook. They did say that the occupant of the first-floor unit poured three or four quarts of cooking oil in a cooking pot, put it on an electric stove, turned the left front burner to the “high” setting, and walked away.

Our readers have seen in the past what happens when a “turkey fryer” gets overheated and the grease boils over onto the heat source ‚Äì instant conflagration.

Portland Fire & Rescue’s Lt. Allan Oswalt told us that, within minutes, the fire “flashed over” and the apartment unit was ablaze.

Blaze lit the night
“I’d drifted off to sleep, watching TV,” said neighbor Andy Andersen, “when I started smelling smoke. I heard people screaming, ‘Fire! Get out!’ I looked out my window and saw kids, women and men running out of the building as the fire department pulled up.”

Down the block, Cheryl Smythe told us, “Our dogs started barking because of the commotion outside the apartment building. When we looked outside, the fire lit up the neighborhood, almost like daylight.”

The fire burned so hot, the steel support for this lighting fixture melted as if it was plastic.

Second alarm called
Oswalt told us that a “second alarm” is typically sounded ‚Äì this brings extra firefighters and equipment to the scene ‚Äì for any multi-family dwelling or commercial building fire. “We want to make sure it doesn’t get away from us.”

Within four minutes of getting the call, the quiet of the early-morning hours was disrupted as 61 fire personnel with nine fire engines and four trucks had responded.

Oswalt said there was “heavy fire involvement in the complex of 10 units, 9 of which were occupied at the time.”

21 people left homeless
Authorities said 16 Adults and five children were displaced due to the damage caused from this fire.

“Instead of leaving them standing out in the cold,” neighbor Anderson observed, “it wasn’t long until a TriMet bus pulled up, letting the people from the burning building get out of the weather.”  Red Cross was called in to help in find lodging for the displaced occupants.

Building a “death-trap”‚Ķ?
By 2 a.m., the fire was out; but nine families were homeless; all of their possessions destroyed or damaged by fire or smoke.

A look inside the stairwell of the building that burned due to carelessness in the kitchen.

Authorities firmly stated the building was not a “death-trap”; no code violations have been filed as of publication date. Investigators imply blame the fire on the inattentive late-night cook ‚Äì calling it a fire due to “misuse of material.”

However, fire inspectors did find that air-handling ducts in the building contributed to the spread of the blaze throughout the building. Further, inspectors noted the smoke detector in the unit where the fire started failed or was non-operative.

“We can’t say it too many times,” warned Oswalt, “Smoke detectors save lives. We’re glad no lives were lost in this fire, but look at the tragic situation this fire caused to so many people.”

2006 by David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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