Some Richmond Fire Victims Homeless

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- While fire investigators and building inspectors poked through the remnants of the city's worst blaze in 30 years, Joanne Cook-Watkins walked the cobblestone streets in search of shelter the blaze had taken from her.

``I ain't got nothing. They told us not to come back there,'' she said.

All her possessions were destroyed in the fire, which started Friday afternoon at an apartment building under construction at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. The cause is believed to be accidental.

Winds gusting to nearly 20 mph blew burning debris onto other buildings over an eight-block area about a mile west of the state Capitol. Nearly two dozen homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged. Property damage estimates were put at about $20 million.

Resident Marion Jackson died when the power company shut down electricity to help firefighters contain the blaze. She went into cardiac arrest after her oxygen tank quit, becoming the lone death officials have linked to the fire.

``The house filled up with smoke, and she died on the way to the hospital,'' said Angela Chappelle-Brown, a cousin of Jackson.

Thick, dark smoke entered vents throughout the neighborhood, making it nearly impossible to breathe, Chappelle-Brown said. Many residents sought treatment at a local hospital.

``People don't know how bad it was. When we were telling people they didn't believe us. When Marion died, that's when people believed us,'' said Chappelle-Brown, whose home was spared.

Those whose homes weren't damaged by the fire count themselves lucky.

Pamela Gross said a flaming piece of debris entered a downstairs area of her building, but it didn't spread beyond burning several of her landlord's tools. The utility company turned off the gas to her apartment, so she lacked heat and hot water.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, art students and faculty members were allowed back in the fine arts building and found their work had escaped fire and water damage. The fire scorched the roof and blew out windows, but there was minimal water damage inside.

``We all expected the worst,'' said Will Beights, a junior.

Jason Hackett, a graduate student majoring in fine arts, said he feels bad for his mother, who lost her car in the blaze, and for those who lost their homes.

``It's just strange how your life changes in the blink of an eye,'' he said.


Virginia Fire Hit At Vulnerable Stage