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Unlikely trio saves residents from blaze

From left, BACA: Journeyman electrician aided rescue, LINDSEY: Fire division chief was going to work and MITCHELL: Had just completed graveyard shift.
From left, BACA: Journeyman electrician aided rescue, LINDSEY: Fire division chief was going to work and MITCHELL: Had just completed graveyard shift.
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Two firefighters survey the burned remains of an eight-unit apartment complex in the 100 block of Glorieta NE on Thursday. It was cordoned off with police tape after going up in flames. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis-Journal)

Two firefighters survey the burned remains of an eight-unit apartment complex in the 100 block of Glorieta NE on Thursday. It was cordoned off with police tape after going up in flames. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis-Journal)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

James Baca, a journeyman utility technician with Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, was driving to work early Thursday morning when he heard an explosion and saw a ball of fire shoot into the sky.

Bernalillo County Fire Division Chief Darrell R. Lindsey left home about the same time to get in early for his morning shift. He smelled smoke, turned on his siren, put in a quick call to the Albuquerque Fire Department and sped a few blocks to the 100 block of Glorieta NE, where an eight-unit apartment complex was on fire.

A few minutes later, at 6:30 a.m., Albuquerque police officer Robert Mitchell was close to calling it quits for the graveyard shift when he, too, showed up at the blazing apartment complex.

It was quiet and empty on the block when the three men converged on the fire. And it was all instinct as they went to work rescuing tenants.

“Just teamwork … we started doing what we had to do,” said Baca, 40.

The three hurriedly knocked on windows, waking sleeping, barely-clad tenants and telling them to get out.

“You could tell they just woke up,” recalled Lindsey, 46. “One guy came out with just his pants on, putting on his shoes and shirt.”

A critical part of the rescue was aiding a woman and the baby she was holding, clad only in diapers, as well as another family consisting of parents, an infant, a toddler and several dogs. They were all able to get out of their apartment safely, but then were blocked in the yard because the fire raged between the apartment and a chainlink fence.

“They had nowhere to go … because of the fire,” Lindsey said. “We tore the fence down and they got out.”

Baca recalled: “That young girl and baby were really scared. We tried to get them over (the fence). I had the girl hand me the baby and she did, and I grabbed the baby and ran to the front. When I ran out to the street, I think I handed the baby to a lady. I ran back and got the young lady who was holding the baby … there were like three or four explosions while we were moving people. It was pretty intense.”

By the time the firetrucks arrived, the three men had removed between eight and 10 people from the apartments, and the firefighters quickly moved in. The fire completely destroyed the apartment complex, whose residents included participants in the mayoral program, Heading Home, which transitions homeless people into apartments. No one was hurt, according to AFD spokeswoman Melissa Romero.

“We were all coughing,” Baca said, adding that he tried to help Mitchell, the APD officer, who was getting sweaty and fatigued. “The cop kind of collapsed. He just got weak and couldn’t hold himself up, so I caught him,” Baca said. He stayed with him until he was transported by ambulance to Lovelace Hospital for smoke inhalation.

The officer was released later Thursday, declining requests for interviews through APD spokeswoman Tasia Martinez, stating only that he was “just doing his job.”

The other two men were equally modest. Baca headed home briefly to check on his four kids, ranging in age from 12 to 19, because they had heard the explosion, then he went to work as usual.

“Everyone’s thanking you, acting like you’re a hero,” he said, but, in his mind, it was a case of “just the right place at the right time, I guess.”

Findley, used to fighting fires in his two-decade career, said he was “just doing something that should be done.”

Arson investigators collect evidence at the scene of the fire, which destroyed the apartment complex completely Thursday morning, but didn’t harm anyone. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis-Journal)

Arson investigators collect evidence at the scene of the fire, which destroyed the apartment complex completely Thursday morning, but didn’t harm anyone. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis-Journal)

Helping residents

What remained of the apartment complex, which owners said was insured, was a charred shell with gaping holes where windows once were. Wads of insulation, smoked bed frames, burnt remains of a rainbow-colored towel, a scorched-edged People magazine and a few children’s bikes and tricycles lay mangled among black beams of wood. Twisted, spent drainpipes hung from what were once ceilings. The property was cordoned off with police tape.

None of the residents remained. The owner, his wife and two sons were securing the property. The sons, shirtless and clad in masks, drilled wooden planks onto opened pieces of wall; the owner’s wife said she had no idea how the fire started.

AFD is investigating the cause.

The American Red Cross in New Mexico also jumped in, with two disaster team staff members and three volunteers helping the survivors.

“We gave them four nights in a hotel, and money for food,” said spokeswoman Beverly Allen.

Additionally, for families who needed it, “we provided infant formula, baby supplies and linens, and we did some mental health counseling, and we are replacing prescription medication and eye glasses for those who needed that.”

At the end of the day, Baca said the experience, his first like it, was a scary rush of adrenaline that left him feeling good that everyone was safe.

“When it’s all done, you sit down and reality hits,” he said. “You’re like, whoa.”

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