Published June 27 2012
VIDEO: Two men heroically try to save lives in fatal Fergus Falls apartment fire
He didn’t listen. On hands and knees, with a towel over his mouth, he pushed forward, desperate to pull the woman inside to safety.
Then came the explosion, fueled by an oxygen tank. It singed his face, knocked him back and finally forced him to retreat.
“I didn’t even think,” he said. “I didn’t think about anything but the lady who was in the building.”
Simon, 29, and others caught up in an apartment fire here Tuesday night described the chaos, terror and acts of valor from a blaze that killed one person and hospitalized another.
The name of the woman killed and the cause of the fire have yet to be released pending the results of an autopsy, but residents say she was an older woman in a wheelchair. The fire started in her apartment, and residents say the man hospitalized was her son, who suffered smoke inhalation and burns after trying to get her out.
The fire was reported around 9:30 p.m. at the Sunrise Apartments at 407 Fir Ave.
Kim Guevara, 38, was in her apartment just about to head outside with a neighbor to have a cigarette. Her daughter, Angel, who had gone out to play, came running back in yelling, “Mommy, Brenda, get out, fire!”
The smoke alarms weren’t going off, but people started going door-to-door to let others know. Many residents were sleeping, and almost everyone was confused at first.
“If she didn’t alert us, we wouldn’t have known about the fire,” said Guevara, who has lived in the building for two and a half years. “We wouldn’t have known about it until it was probably too late.”
Once she had fled the building, she saw a ball of fire burst through a window as an oxygen tank exploded. Fire officials say the unit where the fire started contained eight tanks, and at least two went off in the blaze.
“I still don’t know how to describe it,” Guevara said of the blast.
Meanwhile, Brenda Bobence, 49, was in her own apartment, just around the corner from where the fire started, when her tiny Chihuahua, Milo, started running in circles and barking up a storm.
“He was freaking out before I even knew what was going on,” she said. “He never barks.”
Moments later, the building shook as if it had been struck by something, and police officers and fireman started streaming in to evacuate residents. Bobence scooped up Milo and headed out.
She didn’t get far before the heat from a second blast staggered her.
Simon, who lives near the apartment complex, saw smoke rising from the area. He and his brother-in-law Michael Arellano went to investigate and started banging on windows when they realized what was happening.
They spotted a man trapped in his apartment on the second floor, his doorknob hot to the touch.
“We said, ‘Dude, you have to jump!’” Simon said.
The man threw down a blanket and lowered himself from the windowsill. Simon, Arellano, and another man held the blanket steady and swallowed up the man as he fell. Police whisked the escapee away unharmed.
Simon and Arellano then tried to reach the woman inside. Her son tried, but emerged covered in smoke and soot and struggling for breath.
“He was saying, ‘Mom, mom, no, mom, my mother, my mother,’” said Arellano, 27.
They tried in vain to subdue the flames with a garden hose – no match for what was by then a powerful fire. They tried to go in, but didn’t get far.
“We couldn’t do nothing for her,” Arellano said. “I couldn’t get in there. It was too smoky. I couldn’t breathe.”
After the second explosion, he thought the woman was probably dead. But even then, he wanted to get her body out so it wasn’t badly burned.
He had been getting ready for bed before the fire and was in his pajamas. If he had been fully clothed, he said, he would’ve soaked himself in water and pushed farther inside.
“I had never been in a situation where I didn’t think about my own life. I was just trying to think about this lady and how to get her out,” he said.
Afterward, police and fire personnel chided Simon and Arellano for risking their lives.
Fergus Falls fire chief Mark Hovland said it’s hard to fight the urge to help, but the risks are overwhelming.
“You want to go back in and rescue people,” he said, but smoke and other byproducts “will put you down so quickly.”
Both Simon and Arellano say they know if they had done more, they’d likely have died. But that hasn’t helped them shake the feeling they came up short.
“I feel really, really bad. I felt like I could’ve done more, but I know I couldn’t have,” Arellano said.
In all, 46 residents were evacuated from the 28-unit building. All but four are still livable, though some residents are staying elsewhere until the smoke clears.
The full weight of the night’s events didn’t strike Simon until he lay in bed later on, staring at the ceiling in the dark and picturing the smoke that had come billowing from the building.
“All I could think about was black. It was so black in my room,” he said. “I just kept thinking about that smoke.”
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Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed reporting.
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