A spectacular fire the afternoon of Sept. 15 burned and damaged 16 units in the Tuscan Manor apartments in downtown Belleville, making 40 people immediately homeless.
No tenants or fire fighters were injured, and a variety of pets were rescued. Fire fighters were on the scene until midnight.
The community opened its arms to the newly homeless, along with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, so there was shelter for the night and vouchers for food and clothing for immediate needs.
The fire started in a bedroom in apartment 108, on the second floor in back of the structure at 120 Church Street. The apartment building is located between Columbia Court and St. Anthony Catholic Church off West Columbia Avenue.
Belleville Fire Department Captain Bill Emerson called for mutual aid from Van Buren Township at once and, because Belleville Fire Chief Lee Grant was at his fulltime job, VBT Fire Chief Darwin Loyer was asked to be incident commander.
Chief Loyer had been fire chief for the City of Belleville before becoming VBT Chief.
Belleville Police Chief Gene Taylor was on the scene at once and reported the building was evacuated, but then residents started running back in to get their belongings. He called for extra help from VBT PD to help with crowd control.
A panicky mother reported her child was in the building and then said the child was out and with her.
Belleville Fire Department was first on the scene and parked at the south side of the building. It brought a tanker of water and fire fighters first went door to door, searching in the building to make sure everyone was out and to find the exact location of the fire.
And, crowds came on foot and in vehicles that jammed up the area and led to West Columbia Avenue being closed at Church Street as the fire raged.
At first, it looked like it might be a simple kitchen fire that would be easily extinguishable, but Chief Loyer said fire fighters have to treat each incident like a major fire – and this one was.
“We were doomed from the beginning,” said one unnamed firefighter when the situation unfolded.
Chief Loyer said the tenant of the burning apartment had been gone from his room for 20 minutes or so and then came back to find the bedroom full of heavy smoke.
Fire fighters “knocked the room and contents down,” extinguishing the fire on the bed and other items. Flames had reached into the ceiling.
When fighting a fire, the plan is to “vent early and big,” Chief Loyer explained.
He said a fire fighter knocked a hole in the ceiling of the adjoining living room to vent the smoke and fire fighters were blasted with heavy smoke and heat.
The fire already was in the attic and there was no way for the firefighters to get to it to fight it. Fire fighters tried to get in front of the fire to attack it, putting holes in the roof in two spots farther on down to vent the fire.
“There was a fire stop, but somehow the fire got through there,” Chief Loyer said, indicating that would be investigated.
He said 98% of what burned was roof and trusses, noting if you look inside the building you’ll find the walls aren’t burned at all.
Chief Loyer said the wind was coming from the southwest and the fire was in the southern end of the building, so the wind just pushed it along.
“We were able to save three cats and a rabbit, which we got after the roof caved in,” Chief Loyer said.
He said they had already saved two cats when Fire Fighter Mike Moening came out of the building with a bedraggled, pet rabbit. Animal lover Kelly Grant, the fire chief’s wife, took the bunny to the HVA ambulance where she gave the rabbit some oxygen to help it revive and wrapped it in a blanket. Then its owner was found and the two were reunited.
Laurie Aren of The Salvation Army said the most poignant moment of the evening was when a young man watched the roof of the building collapse and his cat, who he and others could see at the window, disappeared from view and is believed to have perished. Later, the young man’s rabbit was rescued.
Then, VBT Battalion Chief Dan Besson rescued another cat, with singed whiskers, which was given oxygen by Kelly Grant and taken to Dr. Graf at Belleville Veterinary Clinic. At last check, it was on IVs, but was expected to pull through. Dr. Graf treated the survivor without charge and it was reunited with its owner.
As the fire burned, the management of Tuscan Manor was on cell phones checking on vacancies in their other buildings to find homes for their tenants.
The Belleville Fire Auxiliary was there to provide food and drink for the fire fighters and hamburgers to the residents. Donations came from A&W, Benito’s Pizza, Mo from Minimart, and Rawsonville Road McDonald’s. Mike Foley at Frosty Boy turned on his ice machine and his brother made runs to the scene with ice for the fire fighters.
Chief Grant said the McDonald’s on Belleville Road was asked to help the rescue workers and displaced tenants, as it had in the past, but the new manager refused, saying she didn’t have the authority. So they turned to the Rawsonville McDonald’s, which was glad to help.
Chief Grant said someone called McDonald’s corporate office and was told the negative response was “unacceptable” and corporate will be donating to help the fire victims.
Chief Loyer explained that the City of Belleville has an “I Am Responding” internet-based system that gives an exact count of how many volunteer fire fighters are coming and when they should be expected.
He said when the volunteer is toned out, the fire fighter pushes a speed dial number on his phone and enters how many minutes it will take to get to the station.
Chief Loyer said the Belleville FD has a big, flat screen monitor that shows the names of the fire fighters and the times, so the leadership knows how many are coming, instead of just guessing.
Belleville Assistant Fire Chief Bill Emerson knew how few were coming and so called for VBT’s help at the beginning. Belleville has 14 all-volunteer fire fighters.
Chief Loyer said when he was still Belleville chief there was a weekend when nobody was available to respond and the screen showed that so they could ask for help. This is the second time the process showed its value, he said.
Belleville Fire Chief Grant said the system was paid for through a grant from Walmart.
As to what originally caused the fire, Chief Loyer said that currently is listed as “undetermined.” He said there are a lot of variables involved and the insurance investigator will probably be the one that makes the determination.
Chief Loyer said there were only four fire fighters who were in the actual burning bedroom and two were from VBT. He said Belleville fire fighters had their debriefing at midnight following the fire and VBT was to hold theirs on Friday.
Chief Loyer said VBT fire fighters investigating the fire were Dan Besson, Marc Abdilla, and Anthony Karver.
When asked about the rumor going around about the fire starting from a teen playing with an aerosol can and a lighter, Chief Loyer said that hasn’t been mentioned by the investigators, but he could not rule anything out. There also had been a rumor about someone smoking in bed.
By Monday, it was reported that the blaze definitely was NOT arson and there was no aerosol can.
On the first night, 15 families were housed at the Red Roof Inn in Van Buren Township, courtesy of The Church of Christ. Church member Mike Long was at the scene of the fire and his church provided the emergency housing.
The American Red Cross provided emergency food vouchers and clothing and The Salvation Army’s canteen was on hand to serve food and drink to those affected by the fire and those fighting the fire.
Over the weekend, clothes and food were collected for the fire victims at First United Methodist Church of Belleville at 417 Charles Street, just a few blocks from the fire. Distribution was Monday and Tuesday.
Items donated but not distributed were to be given to the Clothes Closet in Belleville and St. Vincent DePaul.
The Belleville Fire Auxiliary is collecting items for the fire victims on Friday and Saturday and distributing them on Saturday.
Chief Grant said the fire site has been turned over to the insurance company and the Tuscan Manor owners and is now fenced and secured, with a security guard from dusk until dawn.
He said one item rescued from the blaze by fire fighters was especially treasured. He said a woman who would be getting married in a few weeks had her wedding dress in her apartment and, after it was retrieved, was seen hugging the plastic covered gown to her chest.