Volunteer firefighters had only a half-tank of water on the first truck that arrived early Thursday at a fast-moving fire that destroyed a 24-unit apartment building and displaced about 75 people, a public safety official said.
Also, numerous fire hoses had trouble drawing water from the city’s hydrants, said Randy Sanders, Everman’s director of emergency services.
But the department’s 3,500-gallon tanker soon arrived, followed by tankers from Crowley, Rendon and Benbrook, Sanders said. Firefighters from Forest Hill and Kennedale also responded.
Authorities were investigating reports that a former resident of the apartments set the early-morning blaze that forced residents, many of them children, into the freezing cold in their nightclothes.
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No arrests had been reported by late Thursday. A Tarrant County arson task force was still collecting evidence from the rubble of the two-story apartment building.
The blaze was reported about 5:30 a.m. at Oakwood Terrace Apartments, 917 Coury Road.
Late in the afternoon, residents complained that the city’s volunteer firefighters arrived with insufficient water supplies. Some said firefighters took an hour to respond.
Sanders said the first 911 call was at 5:35 a.m. and the engine got there nine minutes later.
But he confirmed that the engine, which carries about 700 gallons of water, was only half full. And, he said, the half load “went fast.” Consequently, there was no water hitting the flames for eight to 12 minutes, Sanders said.
“Whoever drove it last apparently failed to fill the tank up,” Sanders said. “I’m embarrassed, but that is the way it happened. I’m not going to keep secrets.”
Firefighters were also hampered by wind and cold, officials said.
‘Everybody got upset’
George Shaw, who lived with his family on the ground floor of the two-story building, said “everybody got upset” that there wasn’t enough water.
Shaw said he was awakened by a commotion that he first thought was a fight. But then someone banged on the front door. He opened it and was met by intense heat and flames, so he slammed the door.
Shaw, who is partially deaf, said he used sign language to alert his wife, who is completely deaf, that their building was on fire. He demonstrated the sign language sign for fire: both hands open, moving up and down, with fingers wiggling.
He coaxed his family out a bedroom window that they could open only halfway. His wife and the children, ages 10, 5 and 4 months, all reached safety, but they lost everything in the flames that were fanned by a stiff wind that blew in with a cold front overnight.
Temperatures were in the low 20s Thursday morning and north winds were 15 to 20 mph, according to the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth.
“It was cold,” Shaw said. “Not good for the baby.”
At 5 p.m., the family’s van was still parked in front of the building, but large chunks of debris had fallen on the hood and windshield. Shaw wasn’t sure how he was going to retrieve the vehicle, or if it would be drivable.
“If they would have got here on time, it would be fine, it wouldn’t be looking like that,” Shaw said, motioning to the rubble, where a few small tongues of flame still flickered.
Occasionally, a ball of fire would belch from the debris as heavy equipment worked to flatten the mess.
Sanders defended the firefighters’ response time, saying it was as good as what a paid department could muster.
“I understand that when your apartment is on fire, it can seem like an eternity, but that response time was excellent,” Sanders said.
‘Dude started the fire’
Residents said they knew who started the fire.
Luster Manning said the man was a former resident and troublemaker, although he could not remember his name.
Manning said the man knocked on the door of his apartment and asked his wife if he could come in. She said no.
The next thing they knew, Manning said, the outside of their apartment was in flames.
“Dude started the fire,” Manning said with disgust. “We had to jump out the window. We lost everything.”
Once they got past the flames, numerous residents went back to the building and pounded on doors to alert the neighbors who hadn’t gotten out yet and helped them out of windows.
That’s what Manning was doing when he saw the man he suspected of setting the fire. The man was watching the building burn, Manning said.
Manning and other residents chased the man, but then decided they had better make sure all their neighbors were safe first, he said.
Manning’s grandson, Dominique Maston, 22, of Fort Worth, said he was proud of his “Paw Paw” and the other residents.
“I know everybody from when I lived out here,” he said. “Everybody’s like family. But they’re all heroes because they put their lives on the line to save the others.
“There was a police officer out here doing the same thing and he’s a hero, too.”
Sanders said there were two officers on scene — Mike Treppa and Craig Spencer — who worked to get residents to safety.
There is crime at the apartment complex, much of it drug-related, Sanders said.
But, he said, “There’s an awful lot of good folks out here, too. They surely saved lives today.”
Sanders said investigators had received several reports of a man setting fire to the building, and the investigators were checking into all of them.
One resident who jumped from a second story was taken to a hospital with a leg injury, Everman Mayor Ray Richardson said. Another was taken to a hospital for possible smoke inhalation, and a third had minor burns, Richardson said.
Buses from Everman public schools took the displaced residents to a City Hall annex at 213 N. Race St. in Everman.
“Many people just got out in their pajamas, and that’s all,” Richardson said.
Anita Foster, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said the agency received 60 requests for help, and about 25 people were expected to spend the night at a temporary shelter at the Highland Hills Community Center, 1600 Glasgow Road in Fort Worth.
‘We made it out safe’
At the community center, Foster consoled Ruby Booker who, like other residents, fled the flames with her children — ages 16, 14, 10 and 9 — by jumping from a window.
She said her 10-year-old son, Marc Anthony, said something earlier that perplexed her.
“My baby said, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ ” Booker said. “Marc, why did you say God’s hand is in all this?”
The boy, settling down on a Red Cross cot, paused and then said with a shrug, “Because we made it out safe.”
Bill Miller, 817-390-7684
Domingo Ramirez Jr., 817-390-7763