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.

“It's like a funeral,” Pauline said.

She and Paul are moving to an apartment in Wheat Ridge.

“We're leaving a community of friends," she said. "But it's also a new beginning. It's bittersweet, but there's relief, too.”

The building's 163 residents spent the two weeks after the fire locked out of their units before they were told the building had been declared uninhabitable due to asbestos contamination and smoke damage. Residents had to wait another week before entering their units, and Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the building, gave them two days to move out.

A dozen residents spent several days living in a makeshift Red Cross shelter at the Life Center, and dozens have spent the month since the fire living in hotels.

Many still don't have new homes, said Linda Haley, Arapahoe County's Senior Resources manager, who has spearheaded much of the response to the disaster.

County officials have been working to find homes for roughly 80 residents, Haley said, and have placed 27 so far. There simply aren't enough suitable apartments in the area for them all, she said.

Karlene Austgen, 68, said she's still waiting to hear back about an apartment in Englewood while she stays with her sister. Meanwhile, crews will take her belongings to be professionally cleaned for smoke damage.

The month since the fire has been exhausting, Austgen said, “but it's given me a greater appreciation for friends and family. God is in control, and he has a plan if we just hang together.”

Others are moving into vacant apartments in the Windermere's other tower, site of a fire in 2016 that also saw more than a hundred residents evicted.

Anne Heathman, 73, is among those moving to the other building, off Windermere Street. Her apartment on the first floor was one of nine that was declared a total loss. She has been unable to retrieve any belongings, she said, including jewelry and souvenirs from her world travels.

She said she doesn't want to stay at the Windermere, but “the bottom line is there aren't enough apartments in the area.” Her rent will increase by more than $400, she said.

Virginia Downs, 71, is also moving to the other tower — which she was evicted from after the 2016 fire.

“I'm staying because even with the rent increase, it's still cheaper than what else is out there,” Downs said. Moving into other apartments can run into the thousands of dollars, she said, after tallying up application fees, security deposits, first and last month's rent and pet fees, she said.

Asked if she's worried about more fires, Downs said, “I can't even think about that now. There's been too much trauma and stress.”

Many residents are struggling with the effects of anguish and trauma, said Kathryn Roy, the executive director of Love Inc., a Christian charity that has worked closely with residents.

The group has trained and dispatched dozens of “navigators,” volunteers who help residents handle not just the agony of losing their homes and belongings, but also the morass of bureaucracy around dealing with insurance and other agencies.

Lyle Wentzel, 76, said the experience has pushed him to the limit.

“I try to keep an even keel, but I'm ready to explode at times,” Wentzel said.

He and his wife Sharon are moving into the Windermere's other tower, and will pay $300 more per month for an apartment there.

For Pauline Draper, the tasks ahead include being thankful.

“You've got to live every day to the fullest,” Draper said. “You can't carry baggage.”


Windermere probably won't face sprinkler requirement

Apartment complex will stay largely grandfathered into 1970s-era fire code

January 17, 2019

A Winderemere apartment tower will likely not be required to install a sprinkler system as part of repairs after a deadly fire, city officials said.

The apartment tower at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton has sat empty since a fire on Nov. 17 that killed one resident, injured several others and left more than 160 residents scrambling to find new homes.

But because the renovations from the fire are unlikely to require the replacing of more than half of the building's interior surfaces, and are unlikely to exceed half the current valuation of the building, the city likely can't compel the building's owners to install a building-wide fire sprinkler system as mandated by modern building code, said Bill Tracy, Littleton's chief building official.

“Given the evaluation of the inspection report after the fire, there's only one wing that was affected by fire damage,” Tracy said. “The rest of the building was damaged by smoke.”

The building's fire code compliance is under a legal status called “existing nonconforming,” Tracy said. That means it does not meet modern-day code requirements but is largely grandfathered into fire code from the early 1970s, when it was built.

HVAC system outdated

The building also lacked modern systems to shut down the HVAC system in the event of a fire or smoke, according to a city inspection.

“(T)he return air system continued to operate for some appreciable time after the smoke was being drawn into the return portion of the HVAC system,” wrote city building inspector Martin Colgan in a Nov. 28 report that declared the building uninhabitable.

The system “should have shut down once smoke was detected at a fairly low level,” the report says. “These conditions constitute a violation of basic and long-standing protections required by the building and mechanical codes.”

The violation likely accounted for the pervasive smoke damage thoughout the building, Tracy said, but fell under the building's existing nonconforming status.

Tracy said he plans to work on compelling the building's owners to install smoke detectors and dampers in the HVAC system before the building can be reoccupied.

Owners not talking

Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the complex, has not yet applied for any permits related to the building's renovation, Tracy said.

Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, said he was not sure whether the company planned to install sprinklers of their own accord, but said the company was “taking a hiatus on press.”

Tracy said he wishes the city could compel the owners to install sprinklers, which he agreed likely would have stopped the fire, but said that doing so would constitute arbitrary enforcement, which would “land the city in litigation in a New York minute.”

No sprinklers after previous fire

The fire was the second in two years at the complex. A 2016 fire in the other tower resulted in the mass eviction of more than 130 residents.

The city did not require the owners to install sprinklers throughout that building either, records show.

A letter from Tebo-Orvis sent to residents after the 2016 fire informing them of their eviction reads in part:

“While the building was in safe condition and compliant with code requirements when purchased by the current owners in February 2016, the fire damaged the mechanical elements of the building including the fire alarm and sprinkler system.”

The building only had fire sprinklers in the basement, records show. The fire was isolated to a fourth-floor unit.

“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,” the letter continues.

However, documents show that the only upgrades to the building's fire sprinkler system were the relocation of two basement sprinkler heads and the addition of one sprinkler head near elevator equipment.

Routine fire inspections not done

The Windermere has not received a routine fire code inspection since at least before the 2016 fire, according to Tim Cox, formerly Littleton's assistant fire marshal, now employed by South Metro Fire Rescue.

Routine fire code inspections of multifamily buildings by Littleton Fire Rescue, which were once conducted annually, had been scaled back citywide in recent years due to time and budget constraints, said Tim Stover, Littleton's former fire marshal, now employed by South Metro Fire Rescue, in a December interview.

Even a recent fire code inspection might not have done much, Cox said.

“You can take any building in this city, and if we apply current code, I could write pages of violations,” Cox said.

Inspection records not requested

Cox said investigators are aware of eyewitness reports from the recent fire that smoke alarms did not sound until hallways were already filled with smoke, and that alarms could not be heard inside units.

Apartment buildings are required to have their smoke detectors and fire alarms inspected annually by a third-party agency, Cox said. Inspectors have not asked to review the Windermere's inspection reports, he said.

Asked for the inspection reports, Boian, Tebo-Orvis's spokesman, said they would have to come from the Windermere's office manager, Jody Naylor.

Naylor did not respond to a request for the reports.

The building's fire annunciator panel, which sends an alarm to the fire department in case of fire, had seen recent upgrades at the time of the fire, records show, and was functional at the time of the fire, Cox said.

Tracy said the owners have indicated they're amenable to making upgrades to the building's smoke detectors and smoke alarms.

Official to push owners for upgrades

The fire was ruled accidental, Stover said by email, adding that he does not plan to issue any other findings. The investigation has been handed over to insurance company investigators, he said.

Cox said South Metro Fire Rescue, which now provides fire service to Littleton, plans to resume annual fire code inspections citywide.

Tracy said he plans to fight for as many fire safety upgrades as possible before the building is reoccupied.

“Will it meet current code? It won't,” Tracy said. “But it'll be safer than it was, and I'll be able to sleep at night.”

Ultimately, the building's level of safety rests in the hands of its owners, Tracy said.

“Do you feel this building is safe?” Tracy said he would ask Tebo and Orvis. “How much money have you made off this structure, off these residents? Can you sleep at night?”


Some Windermere fire victims still searching for housing

Evacuees with disabilities, on housing assistance hit hardest, agencies say

January 28, 2019

Sharon Denham finally found an apartment.

Denham, who evacuated the Windermere senior living apartments amid a November fire that left one man dead, spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and the weeks since in a hotel, hoping to find an apartment in Littleton.

She wanted to stay in the town that's been so good to her, said the 54-year-old who lives with cerebral palsy.

“I didn't want to leave my community,” Denham said from the lobby of the Staybridge Suites in Highlands Ranch, one of several hotels that many Windermere evacuees have called home since the fire resulted in the mass eviction of the tower's 163 residents.

But after two months of looking for an apartment in Littleton that could accommodate her needs and would accept her Section 8 housing voucher, Denham is moving to an all-ages low-income complex in Lakewood.

“I hope it's a community like the Windermere,” Denham said. “I feel so isolated here. At the Windermere I could just walk downstairs and find someone to sit and talk with. I hope I can have that again.”

Many still without homes

Of the seniors evicted from the building after inspectors declared it uninhabitable, at least two dozen are still working with Arapahoe County officials to find homes, said Linda Haley, the county's Senior Resources manager. Some are still in hotels, she said.

The hardest cases are residents with disabilities who use housing vouchers, Haley said. At least 21 residents use Section 8, she said.

“It's hard to find landlords who take housing vouchers, and of those that do, the units need to be accessible,” Haley said. “If I could place everyone in a third-floor walkup, we'd be set.”

Going months without their belongings has been tough for residents, Haley said. Residents were locked out of their units for days after the fire, then were given two days to move out by Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the building. Many had to send their belongings to professional cleaning services to deal with asbestos and smoke contamination.

Denham said she spent the first month after the fire without assistive devices she uses for basic tasks. It took her close to an hour to get dressed, she said, and she fell in the shower without her shower chair.

“I hope I get all my stuff back when I move in to my new apartment,” Denham said. “I haven't seen any of it since it was sent off for cleaning.”

Love Inc. volunteers lauded

Denham said she's grateful for her Navigator — a personal companion trained and provided by Love Inc., a Christian charity network that has worked closely with Windermere fire evacuees.

Love Inc. trained roughly 40 Navigators in the days after the fire, said Kathryn Roy, the group's executive director.

“They provide things money can't buy,” Roy said. Navigators helped disaster-addled victims make their way through the bureaucracy of dealing with insurance companies, landlords and governmental agencies.

Roy said her agency worked with about 60 residents, of whom about half are still active cases.

Many have moved far afield, she said, roaming as far as Wheat Ridge, Aurora, and even Fort Collins and Colorado Springs seeking affordable housing.

Some staying in town

Some who held out have managed to find homes in the neighborhood.

A floor below Denham at the hotel, Ray Hays and his caretaker Carla Baker said they're close to landing an apartment in Littleton.

“It's been tough,” said Hays, 69, who is deaf in one ear and totally blind. “But at least we're not in a shelter anymore.”

The hotel has been comfortable, Hays said, though he misses his CD collection and talking books.

Hays and Baker held out for a place in Littleton because Hays has memorized the layout of the city. Also, Baker's other caretaking job is across the street from the Windermere, and without a car, her daily commute from the hotel to work is at least an hour each way on public transit.

Donations bridge gaps

Finding suitable housing has been difficult, Haley said, but a wave of donations from the public after the fire means evacuees won't struggle to come up with security deposits for new apartments.

The Arapahoe County Foundation took in nearly $75,000 for fire victims, Haley said, and has disbursed about $40,000, paying for deposits, moving crews, and a variety of other unexpected expenses that insurance companies didn't cover.

Love Inc. took in another $20,000, Roy said, which the group has used to help replace items lost in the fire and to augment the county's efforts.

“The generosity of the community was overwhelming,” Roy said. “It's helped so many people in so many ways. It's getting them through.”

The fire has changed residents, Haley said.

“A lot of folks need trauma services,” Haley said.

Denham said every time she hears a loud beep, it makes her think of the fire alarms at the Windermere.

“My heart starts pounding again,” she said.

Hays said all he and other evacuees can do is keep pressing ahead.

“We have to make it,” Hays said. “There's no other choice.”


Windermere evacuees moving forward, moving on

Three months after deadly fire, former neighbors gather

February 18, 2019

The room was filled with smiles.

Three months after an early-morning fire at Littleton's Windermere apartmentsleft a man dead, many injured and more than 160 residents homeless, dozens of former residents convened at Littleton United Methodist Church to catch up.

At an afternoon tea on hosted by Love Inc., a Christian charity network, the former evacuees gathered around tables with old friends on the day after Valentine's Day, basking in the company and friendship of their former neighbors.

“It feels great,” said Barbara Fry, 80. “Everyone here came through such dark days and nights, and now we're a lot more upbeat.”

Fry recently moved into a new apartment in Wheat Ridge.

“It has excellent fire protection,” said Fry, who was evicted from the Windermere once before, when a similar fire forced a mass evacuation in 2016. “Every room has sprinklers. That was the first thing I asked every apartment complex I called.”

The Windermere, owned by Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, does not have a building-wide fire sprinkler system

The building's owners have received a demolition permit for the building's interior, said Bill Tracy, Littleton's chief building official on Feb. 13.  They have not yet applied for permits to begin renovating the building, he added. 

Some evacuees are still struggling. Jerald Ferrero and his wife Judy have been living at a Motel 6 on Arapahoe Road since the fire. After a fruitless apartment search and frustration with the response of local officials, Ferrero said they're giving up and heading back to their native Chicago.

“If it weren't for the fire, we probably would have stayed here until we died,” Ferrero said.

Life is starting to settle for many of the evacuees, said Linda Haley, Arapahoe County's Senior Resources manager.

At least 110 of the evacuees have found new places to live, Haley said, though her office is still working with roughly 20 people who are still searching for homes.

“As always, we are still looking for places that accept Section 8 housing vouchers and are accessible to people with disabilities,” Haley said.

In the meantime, Love Inc. is still working to provide resources and assistance for evacuees, said Kathryn Roy, the group's executive director.

Love Inc. volunteers passed out gift cards to the evacuees at the event, bought with donated funds. Evacuees also took home a contact list, with phone numbers and email addresses for their former neighbors.

“Today is so different than that awful Saturday morning,” Roy said, referring to the day of the fire on Nov. 17. “From the height of trauma, we're coming to a better place.”


City council recognizes heroes of Windermere fire

Stories of bravery and everyday decency emerged from tragedy

May 24, 2019

Some pulled victims from rooms roiling with smoke. Some gave shelter to traumatized evacuees. Some found homes for scores of seniors left suddenly homeless. When tragedy struck, the heroes of the Windermere fire answered the call.

Littleton City Council recognized the valor of dozens of first responders, volunteers and others who came to the rescue last November, when a fire at the Windermere apartments left a resident dead, many injured and more than 160 residents homeless.

“Littleton is a better place because of each of you,” Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman told the group gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in council chambers on May 21. “On behalf of the citizens of Littleton, thank you.”

Among those on stage were Littleton Police officers, who were first on the scene after a fire broke out in the apartment of resident Michael Mitchell before dawn. As smoke billowed from the building, the officers made their way inside, pulling panicked seniors from bedrooms and bathtubs.

Also there were volunteers from Love Inc., who sprung into action the morning of the fire, providing meals and clothing to evacuees, many of whom arrived at a shelter across the street with only pajamas and bathrobes. In the weeks that followed, Love Inc. volunteers worked closely with victims who lost everything, helping them find new homes, deal with insurance agencies, and rebuild their lives.

There are so many more stories: the firefighters who put out the fire and cleared the building. The Red Cross volunteers who sheltered the evacuees for days. Volunteers from Littleton United Methodist Church who prepared meals and provided emotional support.

“This proved that it does take a community” to respond to disaster, said Linda Haley, who runs Arapahoe County’s housing program. Haley and her staff worked long hours for months to find suitable housing for the fire’s victims.

“We all could stand to be more involved in our community,” Haley said.

The dozens of heroes recognized by the city represent just a fraction of those who came to the rescue, Brinkman said, including hundreds who donated money to assistance funds.

The burned tower, at Datura Street and Shepperd Avenue, is still undergoing asbestos abatement, city officials said, and there is still much work to be done before anyone can move back in.

The fire was the second in recent years at the complex, which is owned by Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis. A fire in spring 2016 also resulted in the mass evacuation of residents.

Anne Heathman, a resident who lost everything she owned in the November fire and then stepped up to assist others through Love Inc., said there was a silver lining to the disaster.

“It was terrible to lose so much, but God popped up every place,” Heathman said. “If I hadn’t gone through all this, I would have missed the blessings.”


Three years after a fire tore through a Colorado apartment building for seniors, survivors are still struggling

163 seniors fled an early-morning fire that ravaged the Windermere apartment building at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton on Nov. 17, 2018

June 30, 2021

“I remember the railing was hot.”

On a calm June afternoon, Anne Heathman ran her fingers along the steel railing of the balcony of her old apartment — the first time she had visited since the morning she narrowly escaped with her life.

Heathman, 76, was one of 163 seniors who fled an early-morning fire that ravaged the Windermere apartment building at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton on Nov. 17, 2018.

Heathman was awakened a little after 5 a.m. that morning by a Littleton police officer pounding on her first-floor patio door, howling for her to get out. As she struggled to make sense of what was happening, the officer bashed out her sliding glass doors, screaming FIRE, FIRE! GET OUT! He leaped back across the railing and made his way to the next unit.

Heathman cut her hand on the shattered glass of the door as she stepped onto the balcony. The unit next door was roiling in black smoke. Flames licked around the wall, clawing toward her.

An officer stood in the courtyard, yelling YOU HAVE TO JUMP!

Heathman put her hands on the railing, growing hot from the inferno next door, and struggled to climb on a bad knee. She pushed off as hard as she could, and landed in the waiting arms of “a very handsome young policeman.”

She clambered to her feet, but the officer was already gone. Heathman glanced back at her apartment, but the flames erupting from her neighbor’s unit were too strong.

Officers and firefighters made their way through first-floor units, kicking in doors and smashing windows in search of others. One panicked resident was found hiding in a bathtub. Another was injured as she jumped from a second-story balcony after the hallways filled with smoke.

The building along Datura Street, built in 1972, lacked many modern fire protection devices. The HVAC system, without smoke detectors to trigger dampers that would have been mandated with newer construction, continued circulating, sending smoke churning through all five floors. With no sprinkler system, the fire burned unabated. Without in-unit fire alarms, many elderly residents couldn’t hear the hallway alarms, and remained unaware of the fire until neighbors pounded on their doors.

Residents funneled down the fire escape stairs, making their way across the street in slippers and pajamas. A frigid wind bore down as a snowstorm blew in.

As luck — or grace — would have it, across the street was the Life Center, a church-run outreach organization for the needy, and next door was Love INC., another outreach group.

Even before the flames had subsided, volunteers from both groups began transforming the Life Center into a shelter. Soon the American Red Cross arrived with food, water, cots and blankets.

As the smoke cleared, the toll began to take shape. The fire had been contained to one unit. Its occupant, Michael Mitchell, was dead. It was his 70th birthday. Investigators would later determine the fire was likely caused by his habit of smoking cigarettes in his unit — a violation of the rules, and one Heathman and other neighbors had reported to management several times.

Many people were injured, including several police officers who inhaled smoke as they repeatedly plunged back into the building to help residents escape.

The days that followed were hard. More than a dozen residents lingered in the Life Center, sleeping on cots as they awaited word on their homes, belongings and pets. Though they were eventually moved to hotels, many grew angry as days ticked by with spotty, often garbled or inaccurate communication from building management.

More than two weeks after the fire, management made the announcement many had feared — there would be no going home. The building was completely contaminated, and all residents were being evicted.

The owners, Boulder real estate magnate Stephen Tebo and business partner Heath Orvis, through their company Tebo-Orvis LLC, gave residents their security deposits back, pro-rated rent going back to the day of the fire, and $500 each.

Meanwhile, supporters rose to the occasion. Community members donated tens of thousands of dollars to a support fund. Linda Haley, Arapahoe County’s housing program manager, and Kathryn Roy, the head of Love INC., teamed up to undertake a Herculean effort to get survivors back on their feet. Droves of volunteers assembled to assist residents in navigating the bureaucracy of insurance. Local churches, in particular the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints mobilized to help residents move.

For some, the nightmare was a recurring one — numerous residents had survived a similar fire in 2016, just two years earlier, in the complex’s other tower, on the west side facing Windermere Street, which also left scores of residents homeless and destitute.

As months went by, the survivors of the second Windermere fire found new homes. Some lingered in hotels for weeks. Faced with a severe shortage of affordable and accessible housing in the Littleton area, they scattered as far as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, often far from family, friends, and the support system they had come to rely on.

‘They have betrayed my trust’

This spring, the eastern tower of the Windermere apartments reopened, following a two-and-a-half-year, $4.7 million renovation. Though the building now has updated fire alarms, it still lacks a sprinkler system and in-unit alarms tied to the central alarm system, neither of which was legally required as part of the update.

Heathman is one of perhaps two dozen survivors of the 2018 fire who moved back into the Windermere, who despite the trauma and hardship, discovered it remains among their better options for accessible, relatively affordable senior housing near family.

Heathman said she has drawn on God’s strength and grace to get her through. She lost more than 150 pounds after the fire, saying her survival inspired her to take charge of her health. She now leads a collective ministry group of photographers and artists called In The Beginning, with a portion of art and photo sales going to support Love INC., where she remains an enthusiastic and devoted volunteer.

But the Windermere continues to test her. After the second fire, Heathman moved into a fifth-floor unit in the building’s west tower in 2019. Not long after, the fire alarms went off due to a small kitchen fire a few floors below. Heathman bolted to the end of the hallway, only to discover the fire exit door was blocked and wouldn’t open, throwing her into a panic (management has since fixed the problem, she said).

Last month, Heathman received a bill from management for a $150 maintenance fee — triple the normal rate. Building ownership says the fee was in error.