It took Omaha firefighters nearly three hours to extinguish a three-alarm fire Thursday morning at the Hillsborough Pointe Apartments.
The first call came in at 8:48 a.m. and a second alarm was sounded within three minutes. The third alarm followed roughly 20 minutes after the first.
Smoke coming from a third-floor apartment in the complex near 144th and Maple could be seen as far away as 84th and Dodge. When crews arrived, the entire building was engulfed in flames.
Two firefighters were trapped inside after the roof caved in. A mayday call was issued just after 9 a.m. indicating firefighters were in danger.
A Rapid Intervention Crew was sent in, their sole responsibility to rescue the trapped firefighters. "The role of a Rapid Intervention Crew or a RIC team, when we get a call of a mayday, which means that there's a firefighter down, trapped, lost, ran out of air, whatever, the situation is their specific training is in rescuing down and trapped firefighters and that's what we did today," said OFD Battalion Chief Tim McCaw.
“When you have a mayday, everybody is all in and you get thrown out of position and so now the primary thing is, we've got to locate the trapped firefighters and then we have to mount some sort of rescue and that's exactly what we did this morning."
Two firefighters sent in to help also became trapped when an interior wall fell on them. A second set of firefighters was able to get in and rescue the first four. The four firefighters were treated at the scene for minor injuries. They weren't available for interviews. The chief said they needed time to process the day's events.
“They actually laddered the burn side of the building, entered the building and were able to get them two out and while they were inside the structure the wall collapsed on them and they had to clear themselves of the debris and rescue themselves,” said Chief McCaw.
“It was definitely a shock when I finally exited the building to see the flames and everything that was going on.” Jeff Ostwald and his wife live in the burning building and were home when it broke out.
"For some reason I smelled smoke and when I went to the closet it got really strong so it was at that point in time I told her that we needed to go. So we just kind of grabbed some small things and proceeded out of the apartment building. The smell was kind of getting worse and worse and then when I finally did get out, then obviously that's when the billows of smoke appeared.”
It didn't take long for flames to cover the building. “I saw it burning,” said neighbor Jarrett Venters. “It was wild, amazing how it was all across the roof, smoke everywhere. “The fire was contained to the first two units on the south side and as I watched it worked its way north and it looks like it's gone down a floor or two,” said neighbor John Kloke.
“The second floor over there collapsed so it was really scary,” said neighbor Stephanie Meyer.
Altogether, 24 units were impacted by the fire, displacing 30 residents. The Red Cross arrived on the scene around 9:45 a.m. to help.
“It started on the third-floor apartment and it was in flames and then it just started moving really fast and then was a huge explosion,” said complex resident Gina Anatulli-Thomsen.
Kandice Agar and her 6-year-old son Izaah slowly walked around the charred apartments Thursday night. "He woke me up and said mom, there's a fire." They watched it burn from the building next door.
“When he saw all the damage he was pretty shaken up about it." It left their friends and playmates scrambling. “It's pretty sad. They've lost everything. They're pretty torn up. They're staying at a hotel for now until they can find a new place to live."
The Red Cross helped some with food, clothes and shelter. Others stayed in apartments that were empty at the complex.
Andrew Weiland was inside the building when the fire started. "Smoke was starting to fill up my apartment so I'm lucky to be alive. I'm not going to live here anymore, no one else should. It's sad, two buildings in three months, don't come here.”
This was the same apartment complex that had a massive fire last December, displacing several residents. In fact, crews are still working to repair damage from the previous blaze.
“It seems like it's too close to be a coincidence,” said Eric Johnson.
Renters are in disbelief.
“Two fires in a three-month period is just too much, it's concerning," said Janelle Bowen.
“Living in an apartment complex is very scary," said Anatulli-Thomsen. "We had another fire and it was all because of a cigarette. I actually don't want to live in an apartment anymore. It's scary living in an apartment. I have three kids and everything, like what if this happens and we're not home what would we do, all this stuff we worked for our whole lives for is in this apartment."
No word yet on what may have started the fire. The complex has sprinklers, but this fire got into the attic.
The best lesson of all to share might be this. “I'm actually amazed there are no casualties or injuries,” said Agar. “Thank God.”