Jan. 14—ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis firefighter was killed and another injured Thursday after the roof of a home collapsed during a fire in north St. Louis.
Firefighters were called before noon to the 5900 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, according to the department. There, crews saw a fire consuming the 2.5-story building, long designated as vacant by the city.
Firefighters had put out the flames on the first floor and were checking to make sure no one was on the second floor when they decided to turn back because the fire was getting too intense, said St. Louis fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson.
As they turned to leave, the building's roof and top story collapsed, burying Benjamin Polson, who died at the scene. Another firefighter was injured, Jenkerson said.
"They made the right decision: Let's get out. And unfortunately, due to the condition of the building, they were caught in the collapse," Jenkerson said.
The surviving firefighter was transported to an area hospital. Jenkerson said the person was conscious and breathing.
Polson joined the department in November 2019, according to city salary records.
"There's no words to describe what the feeling is right now amongst the St. Louis Fire Department," Jenkerson said. "The fire department is a huge family. There's a lot of relationships on the inside that are involved here from sons to fathers. This kind of event weighs tremendously heavy on the entire department."
Tributes to Polson and expressions of solidarity poured in on social media from area police and fire departments.
The initial call said the building was vacant, but the chief said it wasn't clear whether anybody was living there, "legally or illegally."
Jenkerson said that city firefighters regularly respond to fires in buildings that other departments might not consider safe to enter, but the department searches the properties because people in St. Louis often stay in vacant and crumbling buildings to keep warm.
"We get paid to protect lives. We get paid to take a risk, and you know, it's hard to tell somebody on the street who is yelling and screaming at us that there might be someone in there, 'Well, this risk might be too great,'" Jenkerson said. "So we take the risk, and unfortunately, terribly, the risk we took today wasn't worth it. We lost a firefighter."
The building at 5971 Cote Brilliante Avenue was built in 1895, according to city records. It is listed on the city's vacant building registry and has been designated by the city as vacant since at least 2004, the records show.
It is one of roughly 10,000 structures tagged as vacant by the city's vacancy collaborative.
The home was condemned in 2019 after inspectors found six major violations. Several notices were sent to the owners, who list an address in Fordyce, Arkansas, and the case was then referred to court. City staff visited dozens of times to cut grass, chase rats away and board up windows and doors. Over the years, more than a dozen separate charges, $108 apiece, were sent to owners for mowing.
The owners could not be reached for comment.
A source at Ameren said no account had been active at the address for years.
Katesha Carter, whose grandmother lives next door to the property and was forced to flee her home for safety during the blaze, said her family had complained about the dilapidated house many times.
"We would call the city and someone would come board it up, and the squatters would come take it back down," Carter said.
"If someone would have done something a long time ago then maybe this wouldn't have happened," she added, referring to the death of the firefighter.
The building was deemed a total loss after the fire, Jenkerson said. The home next door also had some fire damage.
Post-Dispatch reporters Janelle O'Dea and Taylor Tiamoyo Harris contributed to this report.
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