An apartment fire reported early Friday morning took the lives of three Killeen residents and left at least 36 homeless.
“The entire complex is gone,” Killeen police spokesperson Carroll Smith said. “It was a total loss.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, but officials determined it started in a downstairs apartment in the mid-section of the horseshoe-shaped building.
Steven Ward, who lived in the apartment building in the 1300 block of North Gray Street, said he was first alerted by a woman’s screams and shattering glass caused by the heat.
In a matter of minutes, the fire spread from one apartment to another, destroying the building’s only two staircases, Ward said.
“The way the fire was, there was no access to the stairs,” Ward said. “It was a death trap.”
Ward described a scene of families lowering babies and people jumping from the second-floor balcony and windows as smoke and flames drew closer.
Two of the victims resided in the downstairs apartment where the fire originated, Killeen Fire Chief J.D. Gardner said. The third victim was found in the same apartment, but is believed to have fallen into that unit after the floor above collapsed. Officials have not publicly identified the victims.
A man and a woman received non-life threatening injuries, Gardner said.
Firefighters received a call of a structure fire at the complex at 12:04 a.m. Friday, Smith said.
Fort Hood firefighters were first on the scene, but by the time they had arrived, multiple apartments were engulfed in flames. More than 50 firefighters, 12 police officers and six fire engines responded.
The fire spread rapidly through a shared, open attic space, Gardner said.
“A fire like this, it's one that will stick with firefighters throughout their career,” he said.
Fire marshals pinpointed the fire’s origin as the kitchen area of Apartment 6, where the bodies were found.
Gardner said there had been a disturbance at that apartment earlier that night between a man and a woman. A 15-year-old female resident of the apartment told police her mother left the apartment while the man passed out.
The teenager then left the complex to go for a walk and talk on her cellphone, Gardner said. When she returned, she could see a fire had ignited inside her home.
She tried to enter, but the door was locked. A soldier living in a nearby unit kicked the door in and they could see two people trapped inside.
They tried to get to the man and woman, but the heat of the fire forced them outside. Gardner said the soldier had to restrain the teenager from going back into the apartment.
Displaced residents were bused by the Killeen Fire Department to the Killeen Community Center for temporary shelter, where the American Red Cross provided clothes, beds and food.
The shelter is expected to stay open with personnel support until at least Monday and additional Red Cross volunteers will standby if needed.
Charlie Manies, a gray-haired man who lived just four rooms away from where the fire began, said by the time he got out to the street, his apartment was engulfed in flames. “It went up like a match stick. Everything I had is either ruined or burnt up,” he said.
Manies, who lived in the apartment complex for two years, said he knew the two females who lived in the apartment where the fire started. “I am not sad for my stuff but for the people who died in there — it doesn’t seem fair,” he said.
Several residents said they did not hear the apartment fire alarms sound during the fire.
Debbie Immel, local chapter executive of the American Red Cross, said in a statement, “This fire is a tragic reminder of the value of preparedness. We encourage everyone to check their smoke alarms, revisit their evacuation plans, and double-check their disaster preparedness kits.”