Three alarm fire forces elders from their four-story apartment building

Repairs are underway and some residents have been relocated. Here’s how community organizations are stepping up to help.

SAN ANTONIO — As a swarm of catastrophe remediation workers scoured the Blanco Apartments Wednesday morning, Norma Salas and her five-pound, four month old rescue Chihuahua, Daisy, watched the controlled chaos.

Salas said the tiny puppy alerted her to danger late Tuesday when a fire filled the hallways of the 100 unit complex with choking smoke.

Salas, who said she suffers from asthma, expressed gratitude for escaping the flames with the help of her emotional support dog. 

“She let out a little whimper and when I stood up I could smell something,” Salas said. “I went outside and as soon as I came out to the lobby, the firemen were coming down and they said ‘Everybody! This is the real thing. Get out.'”

Several residents said the fire department had been to the complex earlier in the day for what turned out to be a minor issue.

Salas said it’s common for smoke alarms to shriek and for firefighters to show up at the building, which houses senior citizens and people with disabilities. The complex is part of the Opportunity Home portfolio.  

“There’s been a lot of false alarms with people burning tortillas or soup or kitchen towels,” Salas said.   

Salas said with a high concentration of elders in the building, it’s easy for people to make simple mistakes.

“Like for me, I’m scared to cook, because I know I can forget,” Salas said.

Once she made her way out to the Blanco Road side of the building, Salas said she heard an explosion.

“I looked up and I saw the firemen break the window and tear out the side of the window.  It was very scary,” Salas said.

Because smoke filled most of the hallways in the four story building, firefighters resorted to rescuing residents from their balconies with ladders. At one point, the fire dispatch screen indicated 48 firefighting units were on scene.

One witness on scene said alarms were silenced a few minutes before 10 p.m., for the blaze that was reported at 8:55 p.m.

An Opportunity Home spokesman said two people were hospitalized, but condition updates were not available Wednesday.

Early Wednesday Opportunity Home released a short statement about the relief effort, which included housing about 50 families in a nearby hotel, with the help of VIA buses:  “Staff are providing meals and reaching out to the American Red Cross for assistance. The elderly residents are in need of toiletries for a few days. If the public is interested in helping with toiletries, they can be dropped off at 818 S. Flores during business hours.”

At a meeting of the board of directors for Opportunity Home, there could be no official action related to the fire because it was not included on the legally posted agenda, however the organizations President and CEO started the meeting with a briefing on current conditions.

Ed Hinojosa told the board the fire department should be commended for an excellent response, evacuating 72 residents from the fire, which originated on the third floor.

“Many of the residents moved to a hotel for the night and until their apartments are repaired and ready to go,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said in addition to fire damage, there was smoke and water damage for floors two through four.

“Many doors in the building were badly damaged and will have to be replaced. Contractors are on site today for cleanup and we anticipate residents will be able to be back in in about two weeks,” Hinojosa said, adding he was relieved they participated in fire safety training several months ago.

“I think the residents were more prepared to handle the situation,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa thanked VIA Metropolitan Transit, the American Red Cross, San Antonio Threads, District One Councilman Mario Bravo and his staff for providing aid and comfort during the ordeal and he said the city’s Neighborhood Housing Services division offered relocation help.

The San Antonio Fire Department said the investigation into a cause for the fire continues. No damage estimate was given.

Salas said she believes everyone is making a good faith effort to clean up the mess quickly. 

“I am fairly confident they will take good care of everybody,” Salas said. 

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