Eighty-year-old Irving Sisson was inside his southwest Houston apartment talking with a computer repairman when the smoke alarm on the fifth floor sounded Monday morning.
His first move to escape started at his front door at the Bellerive, in the 7200 block of Bellerive, but it was too late.
"We opened the door and there was nothing but smoke," he said, "so we slammed it shut again."
While Sisson and the computer technician ultimately had to break out a window and await the help of a ladder truck from the Houston Fire Department, most residents at the complex for elderly and disabled people managed to escape the fire and dense smoke using the stairways. Neighbors or emergency workers helped residents who used wheelchairs and walkers.
No deaths were reported, but three residents were sent to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. Two were released later Monday. One was transferred to another hospital. Twelve others were treated at the scene.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
As 120 firefighters fought the blaze, many residents - some wearing only pajamas, nightgowns and robes, others barefoot - took refuge in an apartment complex across the street. At least two apartments were opened for some, while others milled around outside the units or rested in lawn chairs.
Clad in flip flops
Firefighters tapped out the blaze around 11:30 a.m. About an hour later most residents had left the scene, but Sisson remained - wearing a sweater, pants and flip flops - waiting to get in his car and drive to a relative's house. But his car was trapped inside the police barricade, cluttered with Houston Fire Department vehicles and water hoses.
Sisson, who lived in apartment No. 505, said he believes the fire started next door to him at apartment No. 507 shortly before 10 a.m.
Three floors above Sisson's apartment, Dimitri Neagu, 62, a retired Sam's Club employee, was helping neighbors down the stairs from the top floor Monday morning.
"I heard a woman in the apartment below me scream, `Help me, I'll die' " Neagu said.
Besides fire alarms, police and others pounding on doors likely saved some lives, residents said.
That's what alerted Saydesh Kapur, who was in his 83-year-old mother's sixth-floor apartment.
Kapur's mother, Brij Kapur, had abdominal surgery earlier in the month and had to hobble down the steps with her son's aid.
"It was very uncomfortable for my mother to come down," said Saydesh Kapur, who arrived in Houston from New Delhi, India, four days ago.
The Houston Housing Authority operates the eight-story, 210-unit facility. For the short term, tenants were relocated - most of them by Metropolitan Transit Authority buses - to hotels, said housing authority spokesman Steve Mikelman. The agency planned to send an assessment team to the building after the Fire Department determines whether and when the damaged units can be made habitable, Mikelman said.
Complied with fire codes
Some tenants, he said, might be relocated into vacant units at the housing authority's other developments.
A spokeswoman for the housing authority said the building fully complied with fire and building codes.
Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rick Flanagan said the building's alarms appeared to have operated properly.
The building, unlike most eight-story structures, falls a couple feet below the code requirement to be classified as a high-rise structure, said Charles Key, a chief inspector for the Houston Fire Marshal's office. The midrise classification means that the building is not required by the city to have sprinkler systems.
In January, a city inspector issued a citation and a fine for flaws in the building's alarm system, Key said. A follow-up visit revealed that the problems had been fixed.
More than 120 firefighters responded to a fire at Bellerive, a residential facility for low-income elderly and disabled. Many residents escaped down stairways, but others had to be rescued with aerial ladders.
The fire started in a single unit on the fifth floor