Flames lick the sky from apartment complex.
Photo credit: AP Photo/ Christopher Laski
March 26--A five-alarm, windswept fire that destroyed a $50 million luxury apartment building under construction in Montrose on Tuesday may have been sparked by a welder, a fire department official said.
"There was a report of a couple of guys working on the roof doing welding," said Houston Fire Department Deputy Chief Greg Lewis. "When our units arrived, there was a small fire and construction workers were attempting to put it out. There was sustained wind of 15 to 20 miles an hour, and it was a wind-driven fire."
The noontime fire spewed a black column of smoke that could be seen for miles in the skies around Houston and forced dozens of construction workers to flee the five-story complex. No one was hurt in the blaze, but HFD had to rescue one construction worker trapped on an upstairs balcony seconds before he would have been engulfed in flames.
Adjoining properties, including a historic cemetery, received minor water and fire damage, and some residents of the largely residential, inner-city neighborhood just to the west of downtown, rushed to the scene to check their property.
In the end, the 396-unit complex in the 2400 block of West Dallas, known as the Axis Apartments, was reduced to ashes mere months before it was to open to tenants in June.
High winds a factor
Paul Johnston, chief operating officer for JLB Partners in Dallas, appeared stunned after arriving to survey the remains of the complex his company was finishing.
"This was a first for us, unfortunately," Johnston said, adding that the building was insured.
Ninety construction workers were in the building when the fire started, he said, and the company's priority is "that everyone is safe, and we cooperate with the authorities."
Nearly 200 firefighters and 80 pieces of equipment responded to the fire, which was reported at 12:30 p.m.
HFD Capt. Ruy Lozano said a construction worker was rescued by ladder after he had jumped from the fourth-floor balcony to a balcony on the third.
He was rescued "pretty much seconds before the fire would have overtaken him," Lozano said.
Once the worker was safe, HFD "immediately went into a defensive posture" and began dousing the fire and some of the adjoining housing units, Lozano said. "This was a huge undertaking."
High winds made it difficult to contain the fire, which destroyed the complex and also damaged some vehicles parked nearby.
Lash LaRue said he was installing phone lines on the fifth floor of the building when he heard a loud crash, turned and saw the ceiling collapsing and flames shooting through. He grabbed his tools and rushed out while some other workers tried to fight the flames with fire extinguishers.
"It was wicked," LaRue said.
He said other workers were falling off their ladders, and he heard a crackling noise as the fire began to spread.
"All those months of work and it's just gone in seconds," LaRue said.
Despite reports from a number of workers and witnesses that the flames appeared to have started on the roof, Lozano said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
"In a construction project there are tons of variables that could have caused this fire," Lozano said.
Several workers who evacuated the burning structure said a fire extinguisher was not available on the roof of the building. Some workers left the roof to retrieve one but the fire spread too quickly to return, they said.
Witness saw fire start
"The fire started on the northeast corner of the roof," said David Byers, the building superintendent for an adjacent complex under construction by the Finger Company at 2900 West Dallas. "I was on an upper floor and I had a good view."
Byers said he could see construction workers on the roof where the fire supposedly started, and attributed the swiftness of the spread of the fire to the fact that the complex was a wood-frame building.
Adrian Padillo, a painter with CZ Enterprises, said he was talking to his supervisor on the third floor when his boss received a call to evacuate.
"Me and my boss, we ran," Padillo said. "We called all my guys and said 'Get out!' It was getting real hot. The fire came through a vent hole, there was a lot of thick smoke. I knew the top floor was going to burn."
Smoke damage fears
At one point, the fire posed a threat to occupied apartments that ring the 4.5-acre development. HFD firefighters trained their hoses on adjoining housing units to prevent the heat and embers from igniting more fires.
Rose Benestante-Schmitz, 55, who lives across the street from the charred complex, rushed to the scene to check on her home.
"I'm worried about smoke damage," she said while fielding calls from concerned family and friends.
'It was a quick lunch'
The lunch crowd at two Italian restaurants in the 2700 block of West Dallas cleared out fast when the fire started.
"We were having a really busy lunch when we started seeing smoke," said Vinceanne Mandola, whose family owns Vincent's and Nino's. "It started clearing out really fast. People were worried. It was a quick lunch service."
The complex is adjacent to the historic Magnolia Cemetery, one of the oldest in Houston. Glen Telge, president of the Magnolia Cemetery Association, said its earliest grave dates to 1884.
"At lease a dozen trees have been affected, but trees can be replaced. Even apartments can be replaced," said Telge. "It went up fast."
Chronicle reporters Benjamin Wermund, Dale Lezon, Nancy Sarnoff and James Pinkerton contributed to this report.
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