Condo by Alta Ski Resort Goes Up in Flames
January 9th, 2006 @ 6:37am
Tonya Papanikolas and John Hollenhorst Reporting

Fire investigators will be at Alta ski resort Monday morning, trying to figure out what started a fire at Hellgate Condos.

At this point, the estimated cost of the damage is unknown, but you can tell from the pictures, it was quite the fire.

In fact, investigators say the buildling is in such bad shape, it could take weeks or even months to figure out exactly what happened.

"Hellgate was burning pretty good, living up to its name."

"It was a matter of just, really one or two minutes before the entire place was full of smoke."

It was an early morning wake-up call Sunday as Hellgate condo residents near Alta tried to get out of a burning building. No one was seriously hurt in the fire, but it displaced more than 50 people and firefighters worked all day to put it out.

They're tired and some of them have lost a lot of important belongings, but most people have had a really good attitude about everything. So far firefighters haven't been able to determine what caused the blaze. The first crews saw flames coming through the chimney area in the northwest corner of the building.

Locals and visitors at the Hellgate condos never expected to be woken up by fire in the middle of the night.

Ryan Boehme, Evacuated from Burning Building: “I was down for maybe 20, 30 minutes when I started hearing this commotion, people running, buzzers going off."

Patrick O'Connor, Evacuated from Burning Building: “I smelled smoke and heard an alarm and ran out to our living room where there was smoke billowing out from the top of the ceiling."

Fifty-five residents scrambled to grab what they could while the dangers mounted.

Ryan Boehme: “Started to make my way out, and I looked out the window and I saw an ember about the size of my hand fall past the window."

Patrick O'Connor: “By the time we were all awake and running around, the place was filled with smoke to the point where you couldn't see."

Brian Beaty was sleeping in a loft near the top of the building when he heard the smoke alarm. He got out in his pajamas.

Brian Beaty, Evacuated: “This is what I was sleeping in, minus the shoes. Someone was kind enough to donate the shoes this morning."

He also lost his car keys and his wallet with all his identification.

Brian Beaty: “I think I have it easy. I think there's some people from New Zealand who lost their passports. You know, I'm just going to Michigan."

The residents were all able to get out safely and were shocked at what they saw once they were outside.

Ryan Boehme: “We walked down the road about 100 yards and looked back up the canyon and saw 10-foot flames leaping off the roof."

While firefighters arrived, the evacuees were taken to three different lodges at Alta. The Red Cross and the ski resort helped them find coats, clothing and toiletries. They also provided food and massages for the tired victims.

The Red Cross has been helping people who lost identification. They're giving official letters to people who have to fly out, explaining the situation. Some have decided to leave town as soon as possible, while others say they're going to stay and rest and even ski some more before they leave.

Three different fire departments battled that blaze through the night and for much of the day Sunday. In all, there were 17 fire trucks on the scene after the fire went to three alarms.

There were about 60 firefighters. They came from Sandy, Midvale and Salt Lake County's Unified Fire Authority. Two firefighters and five condo residents were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. No injuries were reported. For many reasons, this was an unusually difficult fire to fight.

You know what they say about the value of real estate. Location! Location! Location! That's one of the major complications that made firefighting extremely difficult here. The other huge problem was Weather! Weather! Weather.

As the first firefighting crew arrived from the Alta Fire Station, flames were shooting out of the side of the building.

Rory Hammer, Alta Resident: "Quite devastating to see something like that going on up here."

But the first crew was on its own for awhile. Falling snow slowed down reinforcements heading up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Capt. Marlon Jones, Unified Fire Authority: "So they had a real hard time getting anything started."

The Hellgate Condo location, in a ravine below the main highway, made access tough.

Jay Torgersen, Unified Fire Authority: "Has been very difficult. The snow is deep and so getting hoses to that side of the building has been almost impossible."

They fought it primarily from a distance, with high-pressure hoses that were hampered by low-pressure hydrants.

Jay Torgersen: "There are people from the water department up here that have been able to open and close different valves in order to get more pressure to those hydrants."

But shooting water a long distance in a blizzard was problematic. Wind pushed water streams off target. Firefighters often couldn't see their targets through the blinding snow.

Capt. Marlon Jones: "At the end of the line they're having guys hike through the snow to try to figure out where their hose streams are going. It's slick. It's cold. It's just a miserable fire."

Miserable for the firefighting effort. Miserable, personally, for firefighters.

Jay Torgersen: "They're obviously getting wet and they're having to be rotated out frequently so that they can warm up and don't have any cold exposures."

Burnt and charred, the building is a complete loss. Unified Fire will be rotating crews throuhgout the day to deal with occasional hot spots and flare-ups.