MOUNT VERNON — The clouds of smoke which could be seen for hours on the north side of the city Saturday afternoon blew from the building at 17 Belmont Ave., which contained four occupied apartments. The building is owned by Robert Payne.
The fire, believed to have started in the upstairs rear apartment, began spreading smoke to the other three apartments shortly before 2 p.m.
Sarah Wollangur, who lived in the first-floor front apartment with her mother and sister, was home when the fire started.
“I saw smoke coming through the crack in the bathroom door,” she said. “It started filling up our apartment real fast.”
Slideshow:Fire destroys Belmont Ave. apartments
Wollangur woke her sister, Rachel, as she and her mother, Lin, began gathering their animals, including a dog, a cat, and a guinea pig.
“We got them all out,” Wollangur said as she watched the fire burning from the front yard where she sat soothing the family’s pets.
“I was asleep and woke up to my sister yelling,” Rachel said. While their mother began yelling and banging on doors to try and alert people in the other apartments to the fire, Mount Vernon Police Cpl. Beth Marti and Officer J.T. DeChant started into the building to see if anyone was inside, but the smoke and heat drove them back.
Once Mount Vernon fire crews arrived under the command of Capt. Barry Bowden, firefighters began searching the burning apartments for victims.
Mutual aid personnel and equipment were called from Fredericktown and College Township, and MVFD Chief Shawn Christy arrived and took over command.
“Upon our arrival it was unclear whether or not anyone was inside,” Christy said. “For the first 10 or 15 minutes we were concentrating on search and rescue.”
While the whereabouts of some of the residents was established by neighbors, police officers and firefighter crews continued to search.
As the fire spread through the second floor and attic, MVFD’s aerial tower truck lifted a firefighter to spray water from hoses above the fire. Crews inside attacked the fire with hoselines which were carried to the second floor.
Firefighters climbed to the roof on a ladder to cut ventilation holes. After several minutes, Christy gave the order to sound the alert for anyone inside the structure to leave immediately.
“It was becoming structurally unstable, so we called for a mandatory evacuation and went to defensive exterior operations,” Christy said.
Christy said it was difficult to order the firefighters out before every area in the building had been searched, but the risk to firefighters made the evacuation necessary.
“I’m still not 100 percent satisfied there isn’t anyone in there,” Christy said as crews battled the fire from the outside. “Once we get this under control, then we will go in and do the best assessment we can.”
Firefighters were able to determine, after the fire was contained, that no one was trapped inside any of the apartments.
MVFD firefighters were joined in the firefighting effort by eight firefighters from College Township and nine from Fredericktown. A medic crew from Fredericktown EMS also responded. Eleven MVFD firefighters were on scene at the height of the fire. Off-duty personnel were called in to provide coverage for squad runs, and to relieve crews who had been on the scene for several hours.
A tanker and engine from Fredericktown, and two engines from College Township were on the scene, as well as two engines and the aerial tower ladder truck from the MVFD.
The MVFD remained on the scene into the evening, battling hot spots and conducting overhaul.
The Knox County Chapter of the American Red Cross arrived to provide firefighters with snacks and cold drinks. Red Cross workers began the process of providing assistance for the four displaced families as well.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Christy. It is unknown if the apartments had working smoke detectors.
“This is going to be a total loss,” Christy said of the structure and its contents.