LAWRENCE, Ind. – Firefighters are still trying to determine what caused a three-alarm fire to destroy a 55+ living facility days before Christmas.
Benjamin Court Apartments caught fire mid-morning on Dec. 17. A police officer happened to see the smoke, rushed inside and got everyone – including a 95-year-old woman and several people with disabilities – out safely.
“There was some property loss but there again, property can be replaced. Lives can’t,” said Lawrence Fire Chief Dino Batalis.
More than a month later, the cause of that fire remains undetermined. Firefighters ruled out arson but haven’t even been able to pinpoint where the blaze began.
“Somebody knocked on my door, they said, ‘You need to get out, you need to get out right now,’" recalled Jacquelyn Boyd, who was inside her apartment with her great-grandchild when first responders started rushing around. She handed the toddler to a firefighter and promised they would meet downstairs.
“It was really devastating,” said Sheila Stanford, another resident. “My daughter called me from her job and she said, ‘Are you guys having a fire?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, 'Look at the news.'”
Boyd and Stanford, who both lived on the west side of the building, got out OK. They spent the night in the apartment complex lobby the first night and then moved to a nearby hotel, which the trustee’s office promised to cover.
CBS4 obtained exclusive lapel video that showed officers rescuing the residents. Smoke alarms blared in the background. Inside the charred apartment complex, Chief Batalis pointed out damaged doors where first responders kicked their way in to make sure people were able to escape.
“The fire doors did their job,” he said, noticing the chipped paint. “When a fire occurs, there is a release and both of these doors will slam.”
The fire doors saved the west side of the building. About 15 apartments on that end suffered little to no damage.
The east end, though, was a different story.
“Some of those apartments down on the end, Angela, are down on the first floor,” Batalis pointed out.
Lawrence firefighters felt horrible that the fire happened at a 55+ living facility and right before the holidays. For the first time ever, the department took it upon themselves to help. The firefighters set up a GoFundMe account for the victims. In less than a month, they raised more than $12,000.
“We were able to write 30 checks for $430 a piece to 30 of the residents to try and help,” Batalis said. “I know that’s not all the money in the world, but it’s money they wouldn’t have had.”
The Lawrence Fire Department distributed those checks in mid-January. The victims who received the extra money were grateful.
“They were happy to have something. Some people were using it for a security deposit or a down payment on a new place to live, essentials they needed,” Batalis said.
The department also dipped into its fire victim assistance fund. It handed out appliances, furniture and other supplies to those who lost everything.
Despite their efforts, Lawrence firefighters faced some backlash. Residents who lived on the west side of the building felt they, too, should have gotten some of the money.
“I feel we all should have gotten some of that money,” Boyd said. “The market is kind of tough out here especially when no one is working with us. They want us to pay a deposit and an application fee. Right now, we don’t have that.”
“She said they’re only going to give it to the people that were completely burned out,” Stanford said, upset. “I said technically we were all burned out. If you can’t go back into your place after a fire, what is the difference?”
Boyd and Sanford had to leave their hotel rooms Jan. 28. The Benjamin Court Apartment managers said they would hopefully get to move back into their apartment units on Feb. 1.
“They haven’t done anything for me,” Stanford said. “We have been through heck. I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I didn’t have any clothes. It was horrible.”
The east side of the building will be torn down and rebuilt. Construction could take 18 months.