Just hours before a massive fire ravaged Whittier Apartments where Matthew Sheares lived, he fell asleep on the couch.
It wouldn’t have been a big detail in Sheares’ life at all, except that part of his apartment tends to channel more noise from adjacent living units than his bedroom attic.
Sheares, 41, had been living at the Whittier Apartments on Pearl Street since mid-May in a third-floor unit. At around 3:30 a.m. on October 19, he said a persistent noise roused him from his sleep on the sofa.
âI woke up and I was like, ‘What is this? This does not sound good. It was noisy. It was a commotion I had never heard before, âsaid Sheares.
It was a combination of thudding, banging and then screaming.
âThat’s what really got me out of the house,â Sheares said. “I opened my door and all you see is this shining light coming down the hall and you can hear (the fire).”
He said the fire had a cracking and cracking sound.
Sheares was among residents of 81 units who fled the blaze. More than a week after the devastation, he shared his escape story and how he tried to help his neighbors as flames engulfed the building. Meanwhile, Sheares’ neighbor Olivia Steinmetz, 23, shared how she and her boyfriend had to jump from the second-story balcony to get to safety.
Boulder Police, who were patrolling downtown early that morning, responded to the blaze around 3:35 a.m. – two minutes after receiving the first dispatch call. Police said they were able to access more than 60 units, but due to the intensity of the smoke and flames, they were unable to reach the other units.
Shannon Aulabaugh, the city’s communications manager, wrote in an email on Friday that authorities had returned the condos to property managers. The cause of the fire has not been identified.
âThe investigation is ongoing,â Aulabaugh said. âWe don’t expect to publish anything more about the investigation in the next eight weeks. The property management company decides if residents can or will be allowed to return and collect items, and I’m not sure if they’ve made a decision. The buildings were marked as “dangerous”. The owners (property) and their insurance will decide on the next steps in the reconstruction.
All residents have reportedly been identified. The Daily Camera reported that there were sprinklers and fire alarms that were activated, but they were triggered in areas where the fire burned the most.
After seeing that the building was on fire, Sheares said he threw his laptop in his backpack and left his home. He felt, however, that he couldn’t get out of the building without at least warning his neighbors, who may still be asleep.
âI told myself to get as many people out as possible,â Sheares said. âI started knocking on doors and shouted ‘Fire!’ No alarm is triggered. I just watch the fire grow. When people first meet you, some have started to shut the door on me. I was like ‘You can’t stay inside, you have to get out.’ “
Sheares said he and the residents on the third floor were able to get in and out of the building and enter the east parking lot.
âI didn’t know what I was going into (as I was escaping) so I called my mom to tell her I loved her,â Sheares said.
While on the phone with his mother, who lives in Florida, Sheares said he realized once he was safe outside that not everyone was out of the room yet. building.
âI went up to the second floor and met the police,â Sheares said. “I said, ‘Have you knocked on every door? “”
He said he had started helping police go door to door to alert residents. Other neighbors also helped him, Sheares said, and together they knocked on doors, yelling for people to evacuate.
âIt happened on the second floor and the first floor,â Sheares said. âWe knocked on as many doors as we could and then we got out. It was a group effort. “
He added: “I don’t know how to describe it other than the most intense thing I have ever experienced.”
On the lower floor where Sheares lived, Steinmetz, 23, woke up around 3:50 a.m. to what looked like people in the units above her running around.
Steinmetz had been living in a unit on the second floor of the Whittier Apartments, at 2301 Pearl St., since early August with her boyfriend. When she glanced outside, after waking up abruptly early that morning, she noticed that she could see the color orange reflected in the glass of townhouses and condos. in front of them.
âWe didn’t hear any alarms or anything,â Steinmetz said. “My boyfriend went to the front door and I didn’t see him, but he saw what he thinks were 60 foot flames, quite close to him.”
These flames, said Steinmetz, were blocking the exit from the building. Knowing they would have to find an alternate route, the couple dragged a mattress onto the balcony and threw it on the bushes and gravel that were about 30 feet below. Clinging to the balcony, they both collapsed on the mattress.
âHe went first,â Steinmetz recalls. âI couldn’t see very well because I wear lenses or glasses and I didn’t have any. It was also very dark. I was suspended and then I fell. I landed in a way that really hurt me. I couldn’t get up for a second.
Steinmetiz said that after lying there for a while, she was able to get up and run away with her boyfriend. The couple regrouped with their neighbors and the police, who gave them blankets.
She found out later that day, after a trip to the emergency room, that she had suffered three compression fractures to her spine as a result of a fall.
Steinmetz and her boyfriend, Max Yusen, stayed with her sister in her Denver apartment. Now in a back brace, Steinmetz said she is able to walk short distances, but is not healed enough to be able to do her two jobs in Boulder, one on an organic farm and the another in a houseplant store.
In the coming week, she has a follow-up appointment with a neurosurgeon to further assess her back.
âThey don’t think I need surgery,â Steinmetz said. âI’m really grateful for that, but I don’t know what they’re going to say next. I have a feeling it will take a few months before I fully recover.
The couple were able to recover their car. With the building’s security still being assessed by authorities, Steinmetz said they had not yet been able to return to their unit to see if they could recover their belongings. But, Steinmetz and Sheares are not very hopeful that there is anything left to claim.
Reflecting on what lies ahead, Steinmetz said she plans to return to a family home in Washington to continue recovering from her injury.
âI don’t think my boyfriend and I will be going back to Boulder, unfortunately,â Steinmetz said.
Sheares wonders what would have happened if he had chosen to sleep in his loft that night, instead of dozing off on the sofa and why he only heard a few fire alarms go off.
Steinmetz said the scariest part was how big the fire was already when they woke up.
âThere was no real noise except for people moving around,â Steinmetz said.
Aulabaugh said the complex did not have a “building” fire alarm system and was not needed. However, all units had smoke detectors, which is mandatory.
“I don’t know how many (smoke detectors) worked to alert occupants before being alerted by yelling and knocking on their doors by other residences and the police,” Aulabaugh wrote. âHowever, most units did not have smoke in their units before the fire was discovered, as the fire started outside the building. They only go off when there is smoke in the device.
After the fire, Sheares said the man who owns a gym where Sheares goes, offered to let Sheares stay with him and his wife. Sheares said he was now living in temporary accommodation and was able to continue working at his maintenance and landscaping companies.
Steinmetz said she was grateful to the firefighters who put out the blaze and that no one else in her compound was seriously injured or killed.
âEveryone who has helped so far has been generous and kind,â said Steinmetz. âI saw some Go Fund Me’s for apartment residents. I just enjoy every little thing everyone has done.
Sheares said since the fire, about half a dozen neighbors have thanked him for knocking on their door. He pleaded with the Boulder County community to continue helping those displaced by the fire.
The Daily Camera previously reported that the American Red Cross was working with residents to help them find temporary housing and support services. Those wishing to come to the aid of the disaster victims are asked to make a donation directly to the Red Cross. For more information, people can visit redcross.org/donate, call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669), or text REDCROSS to 90999.
âI want people to know that there are people out there who care about them and will do anything to make sure the person next to them is okay,â Sheares said. âWithout community, what do we have?