GALVESTON —Tenants of a five-story apartment building downtown awoke Friday morning to neighbors yelling, “fire!” and police kicking in doors along a smoke-filled hallway to alert residents of the deadly blaze.
One resident, a man in his 60s, died. Firefighters and police helped rescue four other people and two dogs from the 5 a.m. blaze that displaced about 30 tenants at Justine apartments, 503 21st Street above Bob’s Grocery, officials said.
Third-floor neighbor David Biondo knew the man who died only by his first name.
“When I heard people shouting ‘fire!’ I didn’t even have any smoke in my room,” Biondo said. “I opened the door and the whole hallway and everything was thick with smoke.”
The neighbor tried to rescue the fire victim.
“He tried to kick the door open, but it was so full of smoke he couldn’t get in,” Biondo said.
After Biondo escaped the building unharmed, he saw first responders carrying his unconscious neighbor to the street.
“I don’t know him too well,” Biondo said. “He’s kind of handicapped. He’s in a wheelchair.”
Galveston police officers ran to the third floor through smoke so thick they could barely see each other, police Lt. Larry Chambers said.
“They did force open a few doors to wake up people to get them out of the building,” Chambers said. “The smoke was thick; they didn’t know where the fire was coming from yet, and they were trying to get everybody out safely.”
The fire started in the victim’s apartment on the back of the building along an alley. Firefighters helped four people evacuate down a rear fire escape, Elizabeth Rogers, a spokeswoman for the city of Galveston, said.
An ambulance crew took the fire victim to the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was pronounced dead.
Officials withheld the man’s name until they could tell a relative of his death. The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office had not found a relative as of Friday afternoon, a spokesman said.
Early on, firefighters called a second alarm as a precaution, but within 24 minutes they had the building’s 20 apartments evacuated and the fire extinguished, Interim Fire Chief Mike Wisko said.
Fire marshals had not as of Friday afternoon determined what caused the blaze, although it was likely an accident, Wisko said.
The city’s Building Department posted signs on the front door, warning that the building was unsafe. The building remained closed until smoke and water damage was mitigated, Rogers said.
Residents were allowed inside the building under escort to claim medicines and necessities to last a few days, Wisko said.
Fire marshals were researching the fire code in the early 1960s, when the building was converted to apartments, to determine what standard fire suppression requirements were at the time.
The building was insured and a restoration service was on scene Friday afternoon, preparing to repair the damage.
The American Red Cross set up shop in the liquor store next to Bob’s Grocery on the bottom floor and provided hotel vouchers to eight tenants, who said they were told they might be able to return to their apartments as early as Monday afternoon.
Contact reporter Chris Paschenko at 409-683-5241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.