A neighbor rescued a boy from an apartment fire in Prairie City early Thursday morning, but two girls died in the blaze.
Kimberley Shelton lived in the Strawbery Village apartment complex with her five children, three boys ages 17, 12 and 4 and two girls ages 3 and 1, according to Prairie City Volunteer Fire Department Chief Marvin Rynearson. The three boys survived, and the two young girls perished in the fire, he said.
The surviving family members were transported to Blue Mountain Hospital, and the mother was transported by air ambulance to another hospital, Rynearson said.
Escaping the inferno
According to next-door neighbor Gloria Tirico, Shelton managed to get out of her burning apartment and go to Unit 4 in another building for help. Tirico’s niece Livy Atchley and Allen Detweiler live in Unit 4.
“Livy said she didn’t know how Kimberley made it to their apartment, she was so badly burned,” Tirico said.
Tirico said she heard some pounding on the walls of her apartment about 2:40 a.m. while she lay in bed but didn’t consider it unusual. Then she heard a very loud bang.
“I later learned that was Allen breaking down the back door to Kimberley’s apartment,” Tirico said.
Tirico then said she heard some pounding on her apartment door. It was her niece banging on the door to wake her up. Tirico said she smelled smoke when she got downstairs but never heard a smoke alarm. She left her apartment in her nightgown and saw Kimberley Shelton out on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, Detweiler had gained access to the Shelton family’s apartment where he encountered thick black smoke. According to apartment manager Carl Stinnett, Detweiler got on his hands and knees and began to crawl around beneath the smoke. He heard a groan, saw a foot and dragged a child out of the burning apartment, Stinnett said.
“He rescued the 4-year-old boy,” Stinnett said.
Detweiler and Steven Shelton, the eldest son, tried to get to the second floor but were turned back by the blaze.
“Allen said he couldn’t get up the stairs,” Rynearson said. “I respect him for what he did.”
Battling the blaze
The fire department received an alarm at 2:43 a.m., Rynearson said. The Prairie City firefighters arrived on the scene at 2:50 a.m., Rynearson said. That was a good response time, he noted, adding that he called for backup from John Day as soon as he realized where the fire was.
Two Prairie City engines were joined by two engines from the John Day Volunteer Fire Department, along with ambulances from Prairie City and John Day, several fire department command vehicles and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and John Day Police Department.
The Sheltons’ apartment was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived, Rynearson said, with flames visible through the first floor windows and thick black smoke coming out of the second floor.
The firefighters were unable to gain access to the second floor of the Sheltons’ apartment because of the burning stairway and turned instead to going through Tirico’s bedroom wall next door. But it was too late for the two little girls.
Rynearson said only Building B in the four-building apartment complex sustained significant interior fire damage. Firefighters were able to protect the other buildings from the fire. John Day firefighters returned to the John Day fire hall around 8:30 a.m.
No firefighters were injured as they fought the blaze, Rynearson said.
The investigation is ongoing. Deputy State Fire Marshal Dave Fields was at the site Thursday morning. The cause of the fire has not been released.
The Strawberry Village apartment complex is owned by the Northeast Oregon Housing Authority, based in La Grande. Dale Inslee, director of asset management, and Greg Givens, asset manager, immediately drove to Prairie City when they learned about the fire.
“This is a tragic incident,” he said. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to help the families.”
The Northeast Oregon Housing Authority is a nonprofit entity that operates subsidized housing for federal or state agencies, Inslee said. He said the Strawberry Village complex was inspected Oct. 12, including testing smoke alarms.
“The state inspects these units regularly, and they meet all requirements,” Inslee said.
The apartment complex was insured for replacement costs, and the damaged building will be rebuilt if necessary, Inslee said. Stinnett said the complex was remodeled in 2013.
Tirico will be put up in a motel while she finds a place to live. She was allowed to return to her apartment to retrieve things, and she said she had renters insurance.
Two of Shelton’s boys will be staying with a host family while their mother and brother remain hospitalized. Blue Mountain Hospital and Blue Mountain Home Health & Hospice are collecting items to make the boys more comfortable, hospital district employee Krista Qual said.
Items sought include clothes, Playstation 3 games, hygiene products, snack foods, such as pizza, chicken nuggets, fruit snacks and cookies. The children wear XXL and medium shirts, size 40-42 and 34 pants and adult size 13-14 and 10 shoes.
Qual said people can also bring frozen dinners or foods that can be refrigerated. Items should be dropped off at the home health and hospice office, 422 W. Main St., across from the Squeeze-In Restaurant in John Day.
For more information about what the children may need, people can contact Qual at 541-620-8127, but she said personal and medical information will not be provided. She requested people respect the children’s privacy.