‘I turned my back’: Maintenance employee accidentally sets fire to south Omaha complex

Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 2:55 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - An unaware maintenance employee using a propane torch on combustible, frozen water pipes ignited a fire at Cornish Apartments on Monday.

Rodney McLelland couldn’t contain his tears when he realized his mistake would force tenants out of their homes. He wanted to apologize for what happened.

“I caught fire on the frozen pipes — thawing them out. I turned my back for one minute... I come back and it’s a blazing fire,” he said at the apartments, located near 10th and William streets.

The Omaha Fire Department says only certified plumbers should handle frozen pipes. As winter freezes the midwest—Aksarben Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing says space heaters can be just as dangerous.

“You got to be careful with those,” Neil Herring said. “We’re not used to living with them. If you’re not, make sure you’re careful and you don’t have things that could set fire close by. Don’t use extension cords to get heat.”

The basement fire rose through a chase and up through the walls of the historic mansion.

“The apartment’s not gonna be inhabitable for a while,” Battalion Chief Matt Carmichael said. “There’s a lot of water damage. The fire started in the basement and got through the chase. So most of the damage is on the third and fourth floor.”

Firefighters were seen working on every level of both buildings on the premises.

Displaced tenants were forced to warm up in their cars this afternoon. But Monday tonight, the Red Cross says it’s still waiting to hear if any residents need help. A spokesperson said they’re waiting to receive any information from the apartment complex. The fire department says no one was injured.

McLelland was apologetic for the burden on tenants on a day the area is experiencing extreme cold. On a record-breaking cold day in Omaha, there has been rotating outages and companies asking customers to conserve electric energy.

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