Fire Rips Through Illinois Apartment Complex; Families Spending Christmas In Hotel

O'FALLON, Ill. (AP) -- Residents escaped without injury early Thursday when a fire destroyed an O'Fallon apartment building, displacing four families.

Firefighters from O'Fallon, Scott Air Force Base and Fairview Heights fought flames as high as 20 feet in frigid temperatures before getting the blaze under control within an hour at 459 Ponderosa.

O'Fallon Fire Chief Brent Saunders credited the lack of injuries to a resident who was awake at 4 a.m. when the fire broke out. She called the Fire Department, alerted her neighbor, and the two of them got out immediately. Other neighbors escaped, and firefighters evacuated nearby apartments.

"Firefighter Shawn Miller was on the scene within seconds because he lives just a few buildings away from the apartments," Saunders said.

Rochelle Adams said she is thankful to God that she was awake and talking on the phone.

"I kept smelling smoke, but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from," she said. "I kept going downstairs from my apartment, but I couldn't find anything."

On her third trip downstairs, Adams said her smoke alarm went off.

"I opened my patio door and my front door," she said. "I could see smoke coming through a back vent where my neighbor's fireplace is. I dropped everything. I called 911, grabbed my purse and coat, went to my neighbor's apartment and got her out, and I left."

That's when the faced bone-chilling temperatures.

"It was very cold," she said. "I was missing my gloves. I lost everything."

All four apartments in the building were destroyed. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it is believed to have started in the rear of Adams' neighbor's apartment, Saunders said. Fire investigators from the Illinois state fire marshal's office in Springfield arrived at the scene at 11:56 a.m.

Adams said she had renter's insurance, but the fire claimed even her clothing. All she has is what she was wearing when she left her apartment.

Wright spent the day with her sister at a Fairview Heights hotel, where American Red Cross officials relocated her and the other displaced families.

Fire crews arrived at the burning building to find two apartments on the north end fully involved, Saunders said. They fought in wind chills that dropped below zero.

"We kept all our nozzles flowing with water so they wouldn't freeze up," Saunders said.

"We evacuated another eight units due to the smoke. They were taken to a hotel in Fairview Heights," Saunders said.

Firefighters worked at the scene until 1 p.m.

"(The) main body of the fire was under control within an hour, but we knew there were still some hot spots," Saunders said. "While attack crews were inside of the (building) doing overhaul, they pulled out some drywall that got air from the attic and the fire became more intense."

Firefighters from Troy and Lebanon covered O'Fallon's two firehouses during the fire.

Metro sent a bus for firefighters to use to stay warm as they took turns fighting the fire. The American Red Cross and O'Fallon Police were on hand, too. Saunders said he was grateful for everyone who helped out.

Chris Mendola of Christone Enterprises, which manages the Ponderosa Street apartments, said four families were displaced.

"We would like to do something to help those people who literally lost everything but their pajamas and night slippers they came out their apartments in," he said.

Anyone wanting to make a donation, particularly gifts for the children and clothes, can drop them off or send them to Christone Enterprises Inc., 125 W. First St., O'Fallon, IL. 62269. Mendola said he'd be happy to pick up any donations from anywhere. For pick-up donations, call 624-2502.