The Windermere Fire

In a series that won Best News Series at the 2019 Top of the Rockies Awards, I followed the swiftly-evolving disaster that befell dozens of low-income seniors when the Windermere apartment tower caught fire in the Littleton Independent. While the building's management did all they could to control the narrative around the fire, I remained a thorn in their side and a champion of the building's residents. When management repeatedly tried to keep me out of informational meetings, I enlisted others to make surreptitious recordings that informed groundbreaking reporting. Using a mix of relationship-building, public records requests and data analysis, I discovered that the building – and an adjacent building that burned two years prior – had been exempted from fire code inspections and upgrades, and likely would remain that way.

One dead, 13 injured, dozens displaced as fire forces evacuation of Littleton apartment building for seniors

November 17, 2018

A man is dead, 13 people are injured, and more than two dozen people will spend the night in a shelter after an early morning fire at an apartment complex for seniors on Nov. 17.

A fire broke out in a first-floor apartment at the Windermere apartments at 5820 S. Datura St. shortly after 5 a.m., said South Metro Fire Rescue spokesman Eric Hurst.

The resident of the apartment that burned, Michael Craig Mitchell, died in the blaze, according to a city press release. It was his 70th birthday. The fire's cause has not yet been determined.

Between 25-30 people will stay overnight in the Life Center at 5804 S. Datura St., across from the burned building, according to a press release from the City of Littleton. 

Andy Boian, a spokesperson for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the Windermere, said only 11 would stay overnight. 

Whether residents will be allowed back into the building won't be clear until air quality testing is complete on Monday evening, Boian said. 

Boian said Tebo-Orvis, owned by principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, made sure that residents were provided with food and shelter. The Red Cross was providing food, and the Life Center was providing shelter, Boian confirmed. 

Fire drew large response

At least 100 emergency personnel in 45 fire trucks and ambulances responded, Hurst said.

Crews were able to contain the fire to one unit, Hurst said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Residents were evacuated to the Life Center, and were later moved to the Littleton United Methodist Church nearby, said City of Littleton spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

The Red Cross was assisting in the response, passing out food, coffee, and blankets to residents either huddled in the Life Center or standing outside as a snowstorm moved in.

Firefighters entered apartments through the day retrieve residents’ medications and other belongings.

Residents, many still clad in bathrobes and slippers in the Life Center shelter, described a chaotic scene after the fire broke out. Though fire alarms in hallways sounded, numerous residents said they were difficult or impossible to hear from within their units, with nearly all being alerted to the fire by either neighbors or firefighters pounding on their doors.

One man was injured after jumping off a second-floor balcony because the hallways were too filled with smoke to see clearly, Hurst said. Others had to be rescued from balconies by ladder trucks. Three police officers were transported to the hospital after suffering smoke inhalation while warning residents.

Jayne Cole, who lives on the third floor, said she went for a walk shortly after 5 a.m. and smelled smoke as soon as she stepped on the elevator.

“When I got off on the first floor, the smoke was already rolling against the ceiling,” said Cole, 69.

“The alarms weren’t going off yet. I started banging on doors, and yelling fire! Fire! I went looking for a pull-down alarm, but I couldn’t find one. I yelled for people to call 911. The smoke started getting so thick I had trouble breathing.”

Cole said she ran outside to get fresh air, then ran back in to pound on more doors.

“I was praying, ‘Jesus, protect us.’ Finally the alarms started sounding,” Cole said.

Several neighbors called Cole a hero.

“I’m not a hero,” Cole said. “Jesus is the hero.”

Other neighbors roamed the halls waking their neighbors.

“Lots of people here are hard of hearing,” said Pauline Draper, who lives on the fourth floor.

“Some are deaf. We banged on doors until the smoke started getting so thick we decided it was time we get out of there.”

Frankie Vizcaino, who lives on the second floor, said she spent two hours on her balcony with her cat and her daughter’s cockatoo, waiting for rescue.

“I got this morning and opened the door, and the halls were filled with smoke,” said Vizcaino, 71. “It was like an inferno.”

The building does not have a sprinkler system, Hurst said, and fire alarms only sound in hallways, not inside individual units.

The Windermere, formerly known as Southview Place Towers, comprises two buildings. The fire this morning was in the building just off Datura Street. An accidental fire in April 2016 forced all residents of the other building, which faces Windermere Street, to find new homes. That structure has since been remodeled and reoccupied.

Windermere fire: 'I can't believe this is happening again'

Senior living apartment fire on Nov. 17 recalls devastating 2016 incident

November 18, 2018

For some of the dozen residents who spent the night in a Red Cross shelter after a fire forced the evacuation of the Windermere senior living apartments on Nov. 17, the situation feels all too familiar.

“I can't believe this is happening again,” said Ray Hays, 69, lying beneath a Red Cross blanket on a cot in the Life Center across the street from the apartment tower on South Datura Street in Littleton. Hays was one of the more than 130 people evicted from the apartment complex's other tower in 2016 after a devastating fire.

Hays, who is deaf in one ear and totally blind, lives on Social Security. He has an autoimmune disorder that means staying in a shelter is a dangerous proposition for him, he said, because of the risk of contracting an illness that could prove deadly.

“I've got renter's insurance, but there's a $500 deductible,” Hays said Nov. 18. “I can't afford a hotel. My family's far away.”

Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the complex, is working to find “alternative housing” for affected residents, said Andy Boian, a spokesman representing Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis,

the company's principals.

Boian said he didn't know yet how many residents were displaced. Given the number of people who were displaced in the April 2016 fire at the other building, it's likely more than 100 people call the five-story building home.

Tebo-Orvis is waiting on results of air quality tests that will determine when or if residents can return to their units, Boian said. Those results are expected by Monday night.

Like many in the tower, Hays was alerted to the fire by someone pounding on his door shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 17.

The fire started in a first-floor apartment, according to a city news release. While officials said the fire was contained to that one unit, smoke was reported throughout the building.

Michael Craig Mitchell, 70, who lived in the apartment, was found dead inside. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, according to City of Littleton spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

The majority of the nearly two dozen residents interviewed by the Independent said they couldn't hear hallway fire alarms from inside their units, and only learned of the fire because of police, firefighters and neighbors roaming the halls banging on doors. At least 13 people were injured in the fire, including three police officers. Three are seriously injured, including one resident who jumped off a second-story balcony.

Many residents and their families are worried about what will happen next, with many keenly aware that the 2016 fire left residents in limbo for days before finding out they had no home to return to.

Don Reisner, 91, previously lived in the tower that burned in 2016. He said he's worried he'll end up moving from place to place again, like last time.

“I stayed with my grandson for a while, then in a house my church owns,” Reisner said. “I was so glad to move back here.”

Reisner, who has asthma, COPD, thyroid problems and a pacemaker, said he didn't stay with relatives last night because several are sick with strep throat, which he's worried he could contract.

For many in the shelter, though, the day after the fire was focused on picking up what pieces they could.

“I wish I knew what's going to become of my sister's home,” said Jude Coffee, who stopped by the shelter to pick up medications for her 73-year-old sister Carolyn Vierling, who is in intensive care with severe lung damage.

“I don't know anything yet about Carolyn's insurance,” Coffee said. “I've got a lot of work to do to get her through this.”

Karlene Austgen, 68, was still looking for her cat Zuzu, who may have ended up in an shelter with other residents' pets. Austgen has a sister in Englewood, but Austgen has a hard time getting up and down the steps to her sister's home, so Austgen opted for the shelter.

“A hotel would've been more comfortable,” Austgen said. “Cots aren't the nicest thing to sleep on at my age.”

Barbara Fry, 80, said she fears she doesn't have the energy to look for another place.

“I pay just under a thousand dollars a month for a one-bedroom, and I'm not sure I could still get that elsewhere,” said Fry, who escaped the building yesterday by scooting down five flights of stairs on her rear end to keep her head below the smoke billowing up the stairwell, while kicking her walker down each flight of steps ahead of her.

Residents won't be left in the cold, said Loni Koller, a Red Cross disability integration specialist helping oversee the shelter.

“We're here as long as they need us,” Koller said. “We've been doing our best to make this a smooth transition.”

Koller said emergency personnel were able to retrieve residents' medications, and the shelter has a nurse on staff.

Other agencies have been stepping in to help, Koller said, including Littleton United Methodist Church, which fed residents a turkey dinner on Nov. 17; Love Inc., a local nonprofit that has been offering a variety of services and assistance to displaced residents; Panera Bread, which donated boxed lunches; and the Life Center, which donated their building for use as a shelter.

The Life Center was also the shelter for residents after the 2016 fire.

“We're OK for now, but we just wish we knew what management was going to do,” said Jan Sterling-Price, 76. “But I know the Lord will look after us.”

Windermere fire ruled accidental, residents still waiting for news

November 19, 2018

Residents of the Windermere senior living apartments in Littleton are still waiting to find out when or if they'll be able to return to their units, two days after an early-morning fire forced the evacuation of the building on Nov. 17.

Resident Michael Mitchell, 70, died in the fire, and 13 others were injured. Their condition was not available Monday. All residents of the complex's east tower, which has at least 130 units, were displaced.

Though air quality test results were supposed to come back by the evening of Nov. 19, they weren't yet available, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the building.

Boian had little news for residents in an afternoon meeting at the Life Center, a nonprofit whose building on South Datura Street — just down the road from the apartment complex, south of Littleton Boulevard — has served as a makeshift Red Cross shelter for displaced residents.

Nobody was available to test samples taken from the building over the weekend, Boian said, though he hoped to have some results by the time of the next briefing, scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 20. Boian said he did not know if asbestos in the building had been disturbed.

Tebo-Orvis principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis offered up nine unoccupied and unfurnished apartments in the complex's other tower, which faces Windermere Street, for the nine residents who still have nowhere else to go, Boian said.

“That took some doing,” Boian said of arranging the apartments. “That's just for tonight. I don't have any guarantees longer than that.”

The Red Cross will set up cots in the empty units, Boian said.

Arapahoe County will provide assistance to residents if longer-term housing is needed, said Linda Haley, who oversees the county's Housing and Community Development department.

One resident died and 13 people were injured in the fire, which started shortly after 5 a.m. Nov. 17. The blaze, which was contained to a first-floor apartment, was ruled accidental, said Tim Stover, Littleton Fire Rescue's fire investigator.

“We know the area of origin, but we still need to finalize specifically what started it,” Stover said. 

The building has fire sprinklers only in the basement, Stover said, because it is grandfathered into the fire codes in place when it was built in the early 1970s. The complex's other tower, which was renovated in 2016 after a fire that left more than 130 residents scrambling for new homes, has sprinklers only in the basement as well.

Though owners are required to bring buildings up to modern code requirements — which include fire sprinklers — at the time of renovation, the 2016 renovation was deemed by city staff not significant enough to mandate the installation of sprinklers in either building, Stover said.

Stover said the building that caught fire Nov. 17 was up to code, and that the fire department had signed off on a recently-installed fire panel.

“The panel did what it was supposed to do, which is notify us,” Stover said.

The panel is connected only to smoke detectors in hallways and common areas, Stover said, not to fire alarms in individual units.

Numerous residents interviewed by the Independent said they didn't hear hallway fire alarms, and only became aware of the fire because of neighbors and first responders banging on their doors. Several residents described seeing hallways fill with black smoke for several minutes before alarms sounded.

Asked to respond to those reports, Boian said he wouldn't  "address innuendo.”

The Independent has requested fire-inspection records from the City of Littleton.

Some residents are still waiting to retrieve belongings, and even pets.

Jane Sterling-Price, 76, said she has been unable to get her cat Sassy, a 25-year-old Siamese, whom she believes is still hiding in her apartment. Jim Bair said he hasn't been able to get his wife's oxygen concentrator, and has been relying on bottled oxygen from the fire department.

David North said he's gone two days without his heart medication.

For those who lived through the previous fire, Monday's situation felt all too familiar. After nearly two weeks of being in limbo in April 2016, residents learned they could only return to retrieve their belongings and would have to find new homes.

“Lots of what we're hearing now, it's what we heard two years ago: `We don't know anything,' ” said Marilyn Grannell, 79. “It's like a rerun. I love my apartment and I don't want to move.”

Seniors likely won't be able to return to Windermere apartment building hit by fire until at least next week

November 20,2018

The seniors displaced by an early-morning fire at the Windermere apartments on Nov. 17 aren't going home this week.

That was the message from Michael Haselhoff, the project director at Insterstate Restoration, the company leading cleanup efforts at the senior-living complex in Littleton.

“I don't see that the building is going to open to overnight stays anytime soon,” Haselhoff said Nov. 20.

Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the building, initially told residents that air-quality test results on the building would come in by the afternoon of Nov. 19, but Haselhoff told a tense meeting of residents that results aren't expected until at least Nov. 23.

The tests will determine whether the building at 5829 S. Datura St. is safe to enter, Haselhoff said.

“It's not something that's going to happen overnight,” Haselhoff said. “If the air quality is good, you could potentially get in (to retrieve belongings) by the end of this week. If it's bad, people may never get back into the building.”

The fire, which was contained to a first-floor unit, left one man dead and 13 people injured.

Smoke spread throughout the five-story building, likely home to more than 100 people.

The first floor near the scene of the fire is likely a loss, Haselhoff said.

“Speaking from experience, there was enough materials disturbed that (the first floor) will be deemed a spill (of asbestos),” Haselhoff said. “The first floor next to the point of origin, it's pretty bad, folks.”

Boian removed three news reporters from the meeting, though numerous residents provided recordings to the Independent. Boian said the reporters' removal was at the behest of the building's owners.

Residents have a “general sense of nervousness, anxiety, sadness, and a desire to have information as fast as we can give it to them,” Boian said. “That' why we're holding these daily briefings, which we give to them every day at 2 o'clock.”

The next briefing won't be held until next week, Haselhoff said.

The delays are frustrating, but not shocking, said resident Michael Simpson.

“It means no clothes, no belongings, no nothing until next week,” Simpson said.

Though no official count has been released, residents of the building's more than 130 units have been displaced since Nov. 17. Michael Mitchell, 70, was killed in the blaze, and at least 13 other people were injured. A fire in the complex's west tower in 2016 resulted in the eviction of all the building's residents.

Some injuries may yet be developing. Carolyn Stubbert, 79, said her husband Jim, 83, was hospitalized on Nov. 19 for respiratory issues she believes are related to the fire. The building's hallways filled with smoke as residents evacuated, though some remained trapped on their balconies for hours.

Though most of the building's residents are staying with relatives or in hotels, several spent the nights since the fire in a makeshift Red Cross shelter in the Life Center, across the street from the tower.

Boian told residents on Nov. 19 that the building's owners, Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, would allow them to spend a single night in vacant units in the complex's west tower, but those in the shelter declined.

“Why move everything over there for one night?” said Barbara Fry, 80. “Here we have food, medical assistance, and each other. What were we going to do in empty apartments?”

The Red Cross closed the shelter on Nov. 20, and arranged for residents to be moved to a block of hotel rooms nearby. The Red Cross will continue to assist residents on an as-needed basis, said Andrea Carlson, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The situation was nerve-wracking for Anne Heathman, who also volunteers with Love Inc., a Christian charity group that has been assisting residents.

“There's a very good chance there's nothing for me to recover,” said Heathman, whose apartment was immediately adjacent to the unit that burned. “All I can do is wait.”

Fire in 2016 saw tower's residents evicted

November 26, 2018

The fire at the Windermere apartment complex that displaced more than a hundred residents on Nov. 17 wasn't the first — a fire in April 2016 in the complex's other tower, facing Windermere Street, bore many similarities.

An accidental fire, later determined to have started on or near a dishwasher, struck a fourth-floor apartment about 11:30 a.m. on April 6, 2016. At the time, the complex was named Southview Place Towers.

The fire spread to several neighboring units and took an hour to put out, according to Littleton Independent articles from the time. Four residents were treated for smoke inhalation.

Residents were unable to re-enter the building after the fire while Tebo-Orvis LLC, the building's owner, awaited the findings of air-quality tests.

More than a dozen seniors spent 10 days in a Red Cross shelter before being moved to temporary housing arranged by county officials and local charities.

On April 19, 2016, 13 days after the fire, the tower's more than 130 residents were told that management was evicting them all.

Much of the building was still habitable, according to a report prepared by an industrial hygienist and reviewed by the state health department, but the decision to evict residents was made by Tebo-Orvis, according to a city press release.

Residents were given a letter stating that the tower would be closed indefinitely for renovations.

“The fire damaged the mechanical elements of the building including the fire alarm and sprinkler systems,” the letter read in part. “Due to the extent of the damage to these systems, most of which were installed in 1972, the systems may need to be repaired and upgraded to meet today's safety standards.”

A city news release sent out on April 21, 2016 reiterated Tebo-Orvis.

“Certain parts of the building will need to be upgraded to comply with the International Building and Fire Codes,” said Littleton fire marshal Tim Stover in the release.

According to city documents obtained by the Independent, however, the tower never received a building-wide sprinkler system. Instead, two sprinkler heads in the basement were moved slightly, and a new sprinkler head was installed near elevator machinery.

City staff determined that the building's renovation wasn't significant enough to trigger the mandatory installation of building-wide sprinklers, which are required under modern fire code, and the building was allowed to stay grandfathered into 1970s-era code, Stover said last week.

The eastern tower that was the site of the Nov. 17 fire did not have sprinklers either, Stover said. He added that he did not observe any fire-code violations in the eastern tower during a walkthrough after the fire.

The Independent has requested fire inspection records for the eastern tower.

Tebo-Orvis bought the complex just months before the 2016 fire for $30.5 million, according to county records. Stephen Tebo, the company's principal, is a Boulder-based real estate magnate with a portfolio of more than 200 properties, according to his website. He is also famous for his collection of nearly 400 classic cars, including the Beatles' Rolls Royce and the hearse that carried President John F. Kennedy.

Heroes emerge from smoke

November 27, 2018

Even as residents were still emerging from the Windermere apartments after a fire the morning of Nov. 17, so were stories of heroism.

Among the first residents to discover the fire was Jayne Cole, 69, who went for her daily morning walk shortly after 5 a.m.

Cole, who lives on the third floor, said she smelled smoke as soon as she stepped on the elevator.

“When I got off on the first floor, the smoke was already rolling against the ceiling,” said Cole, 69.

“The alarms weren’t going off yet. I started banging on doors, and yelling ‘Fire! Fire!’ I went looking for a pull-down alarm, but I couldn’t find one. I yelled for people to call 911. The smoke started getting so thick I had trouble breathing.”

Cole said she ran outside to get fresh air, then ran back in to pound on more doors.

“I was praying, ‘Jesus, protect us.’ Finally the alarms started sounding,” Cole said.

Several neighbors called Cole a hero.

“I’m not a hero,” Cole said. “Jesus is the hero.”

The first emergency personnel on scene were Littleton police officers: Sgt. Sean Carlson and officers Andy Barnard, Horacio Borrego, Cesar Correa, Paul Martin and Steven Pike.

Several residents recalled the team of officers circling the exterior of the building’s first floor, hopping over balcony railings and pounding on doors to alert sleeping occupants.

“By the time we arrived, the smoke was so thick in the lobby that we couldn’t even enter,” Barnard said. “All we could do was go around the outside and wake as many people as we could.”

The unit that caught fire was so thoroughly engulfed in flames that officers were unable to enter, Barnard said.

The team gained entry to the building through first-floor apartment balcony doors. Officers had to break into some apartments where panicked residents refused to flee, Barnard said, and physically carry them out.

In an apartment just above the burning unit, Wendy Wagner, 63, was trapped on her exterior balcony with smoke billowing from behind her.

Barnard coaxed her to leap into his arms, he said.

The six officers were taken to Littleton Adventist Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, and Barnard was treated for arm injuries he sustained by catching Wagner. All were released the same day.

“Everyone in our team had each other’s backs,” Barnard said. “That’s what gave us the courage to keep going back into that burning building.”

Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman applauded emergency personnel.

“I am grateful that the first responders who risked their lives to save others in such heroic ways are going to be OK and that so many lives were saved by their efforts,” Brinkman said in a statement. “We will stay vigilant in our efforts to support those injured and displaced. Littleton is a community of love and caring and all are our family.”

Windermere residents, evacuated after fire, to spend another week waiting

November 27, 2018

Dealing with a “major asbestos spill” will keep residents out of the Windermere apartments for at least another week and possibly far longer, according to local officials.

More than 100 residents of the senior housing tower at 5829 S. Datura St. have been locked out of their homes since an early-morning fire on Nov. 17. 

The fire was contained to a single first-floor unit, but sent smoke roiling through the five-story tower. The occupant of the apartment that burned, Michael Mitchell, was found dead inside. At least 13 residents and police officers were injured. Residents have spent the days since scattered in hotels and private homes, with at least nine staying in a hotel paid for by the Red Cross.

Employees will soon begin retrieving some small items for residents on the tower’s third, fourth and fifth floors, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the complex.

Residents of the building’s first and second floors are still out of luck while contamination testing continues, Boian told a meeting of residents at the Littleton United Methodist Church on Nov. 27.

The good news is that initial tests for airborne asbestos came back negative, Boian said.

The bad news is that the fire caused a major disturbance of asbestos in the area around the fire, said Laura Shumpert, a compliance manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), the state health department.

Though residents were initially told that tests that could determine whether residents would be allowed to return to their units — even to retrieve items that were left behind during the pre-dawn evacuation — could come back as early as two days after the fire, each meeting with residents has had the same message: testing will take a little longer.

“We’ve been mandated to do a second round of testing,” Boian told reporters outside the resident meeting on Nov. 27. “I can’t speak to why the state ordered that, but they did.”

The testing is no mystery, Shumpert said. After airborne asbestos tests, many other surfaces must be tested after such a substantial spill before abatement work can begin. CDPHE oversees permitting of asbestos abatement, Shumpert said.

Shumpert offered no timeline for residents to return to the building, saying that will require far more information than is currently available, as well as collaboration with numerous other entities.

In addition to CDPHE, the property owners will work with the City of Littleton’s building department, code enforcement and fire department to determine when or if residents can return, said city spokeswoman Kelli Narde.

Tebo-Orvis will refund residents' rent for the second half of November, Boian said, and will refund security deposits for residents who want to move out.

The trickle of news on the building’s condition was disappointing to Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman, who attended the resident meeting with Narde and Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Valdes.

“That room was full of people who were afraid, who had a lot of questions, who were not getting information," Brinkman said. "Everything they own is out of their reach. Where they’ll live next week is unknown to them. They deserve a lot more answers and direction than they’re getting from the property management group...The way (Tebo-Orvis) is treating our citizens, the information they're giving them, and the lack of resources they're providing — they're failing miserably and we don't appreciate that at all.”

Trying to navigate day-to-day life since the fire “feels like living in a nightmare,” said Sharon Dutkevitch, whose apartment was on the first floor near the fire.

Dutkevitch and her husband live on Social Security, and have had to wrangle their insurance to pay for their hotel and other living expenses, she said.

“They wanted us to submit receipts afterward, but we can't put that much money up front,” Dutkevitch said. She said she and her husband are scrambling to find a new place to live.

The situation is exhausting, said Carla Baker, a caretaker for a blind resident, both of whom were previously evicted from the complex's west tower after a fire in 2016.

“I feel like I lost everything I ever owned, same as last time,” Baker said. “But God's got his arms around us. We have to stick together as family and friends. If we don't have faith, we don't have anything.”

County officials preparing to help seniors displaced by fire

Senior services office gearing up if residents evicted from Windermere

November 28, 2018

County human services officials are gearing up to assist residents displaced by the Nov. 17 Windermere apartment fire, which left more than 100 seniors locked out of their homes while they await word on when or if they'll be able to get back in.

Residents are aware that a 2016 fire in the complex's other tower resulted in the mass eviction of all the tower's residents, said Linda Haley, manager of Arapahoe County's Senior Resources Division.

Her office was instrumental in finding scores of apartments for residents displaced by the last fire, and may have to do so again, Haley said.

The news that the recent fire caused a major spill of asbestos was not good, Haley said.

“We're hoping for the best and planning for the worst,” Haley said.

The problem is that there aren't nearly enough suitable apartments in Littleton to absorb all the tower's residents if they're all evicted, Haley said — the Windermere offered low-cost rent, security, a community of fellow senior residents, and access for the disabled.

“There are maybe a dozen apartments in Littleton that match that description,” Haley said. More than a hundred might be needed, and residents might find themselves scattered across the Denver metro area.

Haley said she doesn't yet have a count of how many seniors are looking for new housing, because management has provided little information on the building's condition and most residents would like to return.

“At this point, people still believe they're going back,” Haley said. “Those on the first floor (where the fire started) know they're not going back, though. We're trying to position ourselves to respond as best we can.”

Haley said her office has been responding to numerous requests for assistance, much of it in dealing with insurance companies.

“These residents are traumatized, first off,” Haley said. “They can't get their policies out of their apartments. Lots of them don't even have their IDs, so they can't even get their mail from the post office.”

Thankfully, Haley said, the vast majority of residents have renters' insurance this time around, unlike the last fire where only a few did.

Residents face a host of other issues, Haley said.

“Everyone left something behind,” she said. “Oxygen concentrators, hearing aids, clothing. Most of these people don't have a high monthly income. They paid November rent and utilities, and spent money on food. But that food is gone.”

Haley said she is re-assembling the team of local officials, agencies and nonprofits that came together to help seniors displaced by the 2016 fire.

“We are working as hard as we can to prepare to meet these folks' needs,” Haley said. “But we can't do it alone. If we get the worst news, it's going to take a village.”

Windermere fire victim drew complaints over smoking

Michael Mitchell was seen rushing back into apartment with fire extinguisher

November 30, 2018

The man who died in a Nov. 17 fire at the Windermere apartments in Littleton had drawn complaints for smoking inside his unit, according to a police report.

Michael Mitchell, 70, was found dead in his first-floor apartment after the early-morning blaze. The fire forced the evacuation of the 130-unit senior apartment tower at 5829 S. Datura St. At least 14 others were injured, including six police officers.

Littleton fire investigators ruled the fire accidental, but have not yet determined the specific cause. Mitchell's cause and manner of death were not yet available on Nov. 30, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner's Office.

Windermere management was aware of complaints from residents that Mitchell smoked cigarettes inside his unit, which was a violation of the complex's rules, according to the report.

Mitchell had only lived at the apartment for a month or so, the report says.

A witness saw a man she later identified as Mitchell in the hall moments after the fire broke out “with grease on his face,” according to the report.

The witness said she asked the man what he was doing, and he said “something to the effect of `I was working.' ”

Mitchell instructed the woman to pull a fire extinguisher off the wall and hand it to him before “disappearing down the hall,” the report said.

Emergency responders later found Mitchell dead in his apartment, face down in a back bedroom. Investigators found a fire extinguisher in the living room area across from the fire's apparent origin point.

“Nothing appeared suspicious,” according to the report.

Residents of senior apartment building hit by fire in Littleton must find new homes

Asbestos contamination from fire rendered building uninhabitable, officials said

December 3, 2018

All the residents of the east tower of the Windermere apartments — 163 seniors — will be evicted from the building after a mid-November fire rendered the building uninhabitable, building management announced at a meeting with residents on Dec. 3.

City of Littleton fire and building officials declared the building uninhabitable, according to a city news release, because of significant asbestos contamination throughout much of the building.

Though details are still being hammered out, residents will likely begin moving out of the building's 130 units on Dec. 10, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the building.

“I'm numb — just numb,” said Carolyn Stubbert, who moved back to the Windermere after leaving the complex's west tower following a 2016 fire that saw more than 130 residents evicted. “It's the same thing all over again. Turmoil. Uncertainty. I don't know what we're going to do.”

Carolyn's husband Jim said he wasn't surprised.

“I knew since the day of the fire this was coming,” Jim said. He was hospitalized for two nights for smoke inhalation following the fire.

The building's residents have been locked out since Nov. 17, when a fire in a first-floor apartment forced the full evacuation of the building, located on South Datura Street, just south of Littleton Boulevard. Michael Mitchell, the resident of the burned unit, died in the blaze. At least 14 others were injured. The fire was contained to one unit, but smoke made its way throughout the building, officials said.

Nine units, mostly on the building's first floor, are considered a total loss, meaning most of those residents' belongings are so contaminated that they cannot be cleaned. The building's basement, which houses several apartments, is still off limits, said Michael Haselhof, a manager with Interstate Restoration, the company overseeing the building.

Tebo-Orvis is working with the city to craft an “evacuation plan,” Boian said, which will likely spell out a schedule for the clearing out of each floor of the tower, starting with the top of the five-story building. The first floor and basement are still off-limits, however.

Regular moving companies are unlikely to be able to handle the move, Boian said, and special disaster mitigation companies will be needed to remove and decontaminate residents' belongings. The building's elevators, lobby and central stairs are off limits, so movers and others will only be able to use fire exit stairs to access units. It is unclear when or if residents will be able to enter units themselves.

Tebo-Orvis will refund residents' security deposits, pro-rated rent since the day of the fire, and provide an additional $500 per resident, Boian said, but only once each resident is fully moved out.

Arapahoe County's Housing and Community Development Division is gearing up to assist residents find new housing, said Linda Haley, the division's director. Love Inc., a Christian charity, is also poised to help residents with needs big and small, said Kathryn Roy, the group's director.

The county may be able to provide funds to help residents get into new homes until Tebo-Orvis refunds their money, Haley said.

Some face greater problems. One woman who spoke during the meeting said she is an immigrant, and unable to function without her green card and passport, which have been locked in her basement unit since the day of the fire.

Haselhof provided no timeline for retrieving items from basement units, but said all residents should be prepared for a lengthy process of cleaning and retrieving belongings.

“Everybody's unit has smoke damage,” Haselhof said. “Don't move those belongings to your new apartments unless you get them professionally cleaned.”

The city stands behind residents, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.

“It's not the news anybody wanted to hear, but it's not unexpected,” Brinkman said. “I've been sorely disappointed in this management group. I was disappointed two years ago, and I'm disappointed now. The answers just haven't been there for these people.”

Numerous residents at the meeting said they are still without official letters from management to confirm the building is off-limits, which they said are necessary to make full insurance claims.

Boian said the company is working on getting letters to that effect ready “as soon as possible.”

For those residents still waiting in hotels and in the homes of friends and family, at least the news provided a chance to move forward.

“I just want to get my husband's ashes,” said Carla Baker, who lived in the building as a caretaker for a blind resident. “Everything else is just stuff.”

Windermere fire evacuees face difficult future

Local agencies step up to assist victims as they search for new homes

December 8, 2018

Facing down a daunting search for new homes, the 163 seniors evicted from the Windermere apartments in Littleton after a fire rendered their building uninhabitable have a long road to travel.

“You have to fight the insurance companies for everything,” said Jude Coffee, whose sister Carolyn Vierling has been hospitalized since the Nov. 17 fire that killed resident Michael Mitchell and left more than a dozen others injured. “The adjusters' jobs are literally to give you as little as possible.”

Vierling, 73, has scarring on her lungs from the smoke that roiled through the entire five-story building during the fire, despite the fact that the flames were limited to one first-floor unit. Coffee said it's unclear when if her sister can live on her own again, or even where.

“She didn't have much to begin with,” Coffee said. “She's on Section 8 (subsidized housing vouchers). There aren't many units out there for someone like her.”

Coffee spent Dec. 4 at a “disaster recovery center” set up for residents and their families, hosted by a group of government agencies and nonprofits.

The center offered residents a chance to connect with assistance agencies, said Linda Haley, Arapahoe County's Senior Resources division manager. Haley has been spearheading much of the response to the disaster, alongside Kathryn Roy, the director of Love Inc., a Christian charity.

“It's going to take all of us in the community pitching in to give these people as soft a landing as possible,” Haley said.

Haley and Roy are two of the central players in what they call the “long-term recovery team,” composed of a variety of local agencies, including the American Red Cross, South Metro Housing Options and others.

Residents will have just two days to move their belongings, according to documents provided to the Independent. Residents have not yet been able to access their units, Haley said, and aren't sure where they'll take their belongings if they haven't yet lined up new housing.

Though most of the building's residents have renters' insurance, Haley said, it won't cover everything. Many policies don't cover food, clothing, or many household items — all of which the residents lost when they were locked out of their homes. Most residents must continue paying the equivalent of their monthly rent toward hotel stays before insurance kicks in.

Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the Windermere, told residents on Dec. 3 that they should soon be able to arrange movers to retrieve their belongings from their apartments, but smoke damage means the items will need to be professionally cleaned or thrown out.

The biggest question is where everyone will go.

“The supply isn't matching the need” when it comes to housing for the displaced residents, said Ben Nichols, Arapahoe County's housing specialist.

“We're reaching out to landlords we've worked with in the past, but finding good, safe affordable housing for everyone is a challenge,” Nichols said.

Many of the residents want to stay in Littleton, Nichols said, but “Littleton's just not big enough to house all of them.”

Among the biggest stumbling blocks, Nichols said, is affordability — rents at the Windermere started at around $800 for a one-bedroom, far below Littleton's median rent for a one-bedroom, which sat at $1,465 in December, according to Many of the Windermere's residents have little income other than Social Security, Nichols said.

Other big issues are mobility and access, Nichols said. The Windermere afforded easy access to public transit and Littleton's wealth of senior resources, and was easily handicapped accessible.

“Many of the older units around the area don't have elevators,” Nichols said. “Ground-floor units are in high demand, but people tend to stay in those long-term.”

Finding appropriate housing would “mean everything” to the displaced residents, Nichols said.

“The lost their community, their homes, and all their belongings,” Nichols said. “A little stability would go a long way.”

Residents have a variety of other needs, said Roy, the Love Inc. director.

Love Inc. has been providing rides to residents, helping them get to apartment showings, doctor appointments, and to resident meetings, Roy said.

The group also provides “navigators” — volunteers who help residents make their way through the miasma of bureaucracy surrounding their situation.

Love Inc. has also provided communal meals to residents stuck in hotels, offering a vital but intangible service: fellowship.

“We'll be here with these folks for the long haul,” Roy said. “We ask for prayers for the journey ahead for these evacuees.”

Recovering from the ordeal of the fire and eviction will take time, said Maggie Babyak, one of the co-founders of Our Front Porch, a disaster recovery nonprofit group.

“We're discovering that a lot of people need trauma services,” Babyak said. Her group provides mental health treatment and advocacy, among other services.

Indeed, the trauma is still sinking in, said Paul Draper, a resident who has spent the days since the fire in an extended-stay hotel with his wife Pauline.

A resident in a neighboring unit set off a smoke alarm when he burned some food in his kitchenette on a recent night, Draper said, sending his wife into a panic.

“She's such a positive person, and it's so hard to see her sobbing like that,” Draper said. “Our 55-year wedding anniversary is coming up, and we've been through a lot, but never anything like this. This is hard.”

Evacuees moving out of Windermere apartments in Littleton

Residents given two days to empty apartments

December 12, 2018

The 163 seniors evicted from the Windermere apartments after a devastating November fire spent the week before Christmas hauling their belongings out of the building, but many were concerned about being given just two days to move out —  especially because many did not yet have new homes lined up.

A schedule provided to residents, obtained by the Independent, mandates a series of two-day periods for residents of each floor to move out — specified as one day to pack and one day to move out of the building in Littleton.

“It's just not enough time for anybody,” Karlene Austgen, 68, said during a meeting for residents at the Littleton United Methodist Church, across the street from the Windermere on South Datura Street on Dec. 11.

Residents would be given more time if they request it, said Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the building.

“There's no chance that we'd tell someone they can't have more time if two days isn't enough,” Boian said. “The property management does not lack sympathy.”

An emergency relocation plan, prepared by Michael Haselhoff of Interstate Restoration and submitted to the city's building department and fire marshal, says residents would be given “two-four days to pack and move their belongings.”

Even proposed extensions seemed too short, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.

“I don't understand what the rush is,” Brinkman said after spending the afternoon meeting residents at the church. “It's impractical. You can't pack an apartment in that amount of time.”

Because the complex's elevators are disabled and the lobby is too contaminated to enter, residents and movers will only be able to access the building through exterior fire escape stairs, according to the relocation plan.

Vetted volunteers from Love Inc., a Christian charity, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints assisted residents with moving, said Linda Haley, manager of Arapahoe County's Senior Resources division.

Apartments in different parts of the building have different levels of damage, Haley said.

Insurance adjusters combed the building doing assessments on property, Haley said.

Some residents' belongings needed professional cleaning, Boian said. Nine units were considered a total loss.

Tebo-Orvis will give residents $500, in addition to returning their security deposits and the second half of November rent, Boian said, but they won't get their checks until they turn in their keys once they're fully moved out. Residents won't suffer any penalty if they choose to abandon furniture or other belongings, Boian said.

Meanwhile, many residents are still struggling to find new homes.

“The county's still working on finding me a place to live,” said Shirley Whittlesey, 75, who spent weeks since the fire at the Essex House Motel in Littleton, living off food banks. “I'd like to find a place soon. I want out of the motel. I don't feel safe there.”

Whittlesey, whose first-floor apartment was off-limits since the Nov. 17 fire, has been without a phone, and only has one change of clothes. She's one of a handful of residents who had no renter's insurance — she said she was in the process of shopping for a policy when the fire hit.

“I'm not used to needing so much help,” Whittlesey said. “I've been independent since I was a little girl.”

Finding housing for everyone is a slow, tricky process, Haley said.

“We got a lot of response to our call for affordable apartments, but they're spread out from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs,” Haley said. “These people are grounded and connected to this area. They're not looking to uproot. This isn't the age where they want to undertake an adventure.”

At least 30 residents were still in hotels on Dec. 11, Haley said. She wasn't sure how many have found housing, though her office is working with at least 80 residents, and has placed 17 in new apartments so far, she said.

Karlene Austgen said she'll be staying with her sister for the near future.

“They put me at the top of the waiting list for a complex in Englewood, but I have to wait until a unit comes open,” Austgen said. “Not a lot of complexes meet my needs — I can't do stairs. I can't even use a bathtub, because I can't lift my legs that high.”

Others are starting to move forward. Paul and Pauline Draper — 75 and 74, respectively — found a new apartment in Wheat Ridge, though it's $300 more a month than their unit at Windermere. They had to refinance their car to afford the security deposit, Pauline said.

“At least we have something,” Pauline said. “We were finally able to visit our apartment in the Windermere, and everything's covered in soot. We may end up simply abandoning a lot of it.”

The City of Littleton is keeping a close eye on the situation, Brinkman said. The city donated $20,000 to fire-related causes on Dec. 11 — $7,500 each to the Red Cross of Colorado and Love Inc., both of whom have worked closely with residents, and another $5,000 to the Arapahoe County Foundation's fire victims fund.

“Hopefully they'll be able to put the money to work right away,” Brinkman said.

The mayor expressed frustration with Tebo-Orvis' response to the disaster.

“There doesn't seem to be any compassion or generosity from those people,” Brinkman said. “Fortunately, we have a community who cares.”

Windermere evacuees say goodbye to community

Seniors evicted after November fire move on

December 20, 2018

Pauline Draper gathered up her coat and scarf, and headed off to sign paperwork officially severing ties to the Windermere apartments.

The warm sunshine outside the Life Center was a far cry from the cold, blustery morning a month earlier, when Draper, 74, and her husband Paul, 75, were among the throngs of scared, shivering seniors who crowded into the building as they watched emergency personnel pull their neighbors from the apartment tower on South Datura Street in Littleton.

An early morning fire on Nov. 17 left one resident dead and many more injured. On Dec. 18, as swarms of moving crews hauled their belongings from the building, many of the same seniors returned to the Life Center, this time to say goodbye.