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UPDATE: Person of interest named in Spruce Village fire
No charges filed in case
A fire that displaced about 100 residents of the Spruce Village apartment complex in Martinsville on Thursday has been ruled arson, according to Martinsville Fire Chief Kenneth Draper. Above, an apartment resident is loaded into a school bus by a wheelchair lift to be moved to another location. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
A person of interest has been named in connection with a fire that heavily damaged the Spruce Village apartment complex on Thursday.
Martinsville Fire Marshal/Building Official Ted Anderson on Friday afternoon identified Cheryl Lemons, a resident of the complex, as a person of interest because the fire originated in her apartment, No. 303.
Anderson emphasized, however, that no arrest has been made. He said he did not know how soon an arrest — if one is determined appropriate — may occur as an investigation into the blaze is continuing.
He said he thinks it will at least be next week before investigators can question Lemons because they first need to consult with Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar, who is out of town.
The fire displaced about 100 people, according to officials. It damaged 36 apartment units that are not liveable now, the Red Cross stated.
Officials turned the entire building back over to Spruce Village management early Friday, Anderson said. He said it will be up to the management to decide how quickly repairs to the building are made.
Below is the story from Friday's Bulletin:
A fire that displaced about 100 residents of the Spruce Village apartment complex in Martinsville on Thursday has been ruled arson, according to Martinsville Fire Chief Kenneth Draper.
A person was interviewed Thursday afternoon in connection with the case, said Martinsville Police Capt. Eddie Cassady. The case is being investigated by the city police department and the city fire marshal’s office, Cassady added.
No charges had been filed in the case as of Thursday night, according to Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson and Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers.
“We have verified (arson) through physical evidence; we are going to rule it as arson or incendiary fire,” Anderson said. He declined to elaborate.
The fire marshal, the police department and commonwealth’s attorney will discuss how to proceed, according to Anderson and Rogers.
Spruce Village has 101 apartments, one or two of which may not have been occupied, according to City Emergency Management Coordinator Bobby Phillips.
According to publichousing.com, Spruce Village Apartments is a subsidized apartment complex geared toward the elderly.
A call came in at 11:20 a.m. Thursday of a fire in one of the rooms on the complex’s third floor. The fire was contained to that room and the room directly above on the fourth floor, Draper said.
Both of those rooms sustained extensive damage, he added.
At 12:48 p.m., fire crews deemed the blaze under control, according to Draper.
Due to the fire, there is smoke damage throughout the third and fourth floors as well as water damage from the sprinkler system in the hallways, he said.
Additional damage will come once standing water seeps to the lower levels of the complex, he added.
Every apartment in the complex will have some smoke damage, said Ted Anderson, city fire marshal.
There was no official damage estimate on Thursday.
Thursday night, Anderson said insurance adjusters are scheduled to come today and he is no insurance adjuster, but a “rough ballpark” estimate of damage from the fire as well as costs to the Red Cross and family members who put people up “will easily exceed $300,000.”
Typically costs for putting people up are not included in an estimate of fire damage, but “typically we don’t have 100 people displaced,” he said.
When fire crews first entered the third floor of the Spruce Street complex, there were heavy clouds of smoke, and they had “a real tough time” making their way through, Phillips said.
Barbara Wray-Harris, who was visiting her mother, Beatrice Wray, on the third floor of the complex when the fire started, said when the building manager knocked on the apartment door for them to get out due to a fire, “I was just so scared ... I didn’t think I could get both” her mother and her aunt, Mary Hairston, who was on the second floor, out of the building.
When Wray-Harris first opened the door, “it was just a cloud of smoke” in the hallway, she said.
Hairston was watching television and could hear the fire alarms sounding in the hallway, but it took her a while to figure out what was going on, she said.
When Wray-Harris got to her aunt’s apartment, Hairston was standing at the door. All three women immediately went downstairs and outside as quickly as they could, Wray-Harris said.
Residents were taken to Martinsville Pediatrics nearby on Brookdale Street, where they received medical treatment if needed and tried to figure out where they would be staying, according to Draper and Dr. Gordon Green, director of the Henry-Martinsville Health Department.
If the residents were not placed in a hotel or a family member’s home, they were taken to a shelter set up at Martinsville Middle School, Draper said. The shelter closed around 8 p.m. after residents were put up by relatives, friends or the Red Cross.
Residents’ transportation and the preparation of the shelter were coordinated by Phillips, the American Red Cross and the Medical Reserve Corps of the Virginia Department of Health, according to Draper. Stone Ambulance and Hand-in-Hand Companion also transported residents, he said.
By about 2 p.m. Thursday, all of the residents of the apartment complex had been safely removed, Draper said.
There were no reported injuries related to the fire, he added.
Anderson did not expect the residents to be able to return to their apartments for at least a few days, and longer depending on damage, he said. The complex must be inspected for safety, and the investigation must be complete before anyone can go home, he added. Phillips said he thought it may be weeks before the most heavily damaged apartments can be reoccupied.
Possibly half the complex can be reinhabited once it is reopened, and the other half will require repairs before the residents can return, Anderson said.
Draper appreciated the help of the Martinsville Police Department and Martinsville Sheriff’s Office with evacuating residents from the lower floors while fire crews worked on the upper floors, he said.
The entire process Thursday of controlling the fire and transporting the residents went smoothly, Draper added.
The manager of the complex declined to comment on the incident.
Also responding to the fire were Martinsville Fire and EMS, Collinsville Volunteer Fire Department, Dyers Store Volunteer Fire Department, Henry County Public Safety and Stone Ambulance, according to Draper.
Others who were involved in the operation and efforts to serve the residents afterward include Carilion, Hand in Hand, Blue Ridge Rehab, the Health Department, Department of Social Services, officials said.
“The community really pulled together,” Anderson said.
Rogers said some police officers put Spruce Village residents on their backs and carried them down several flights of stairs.
“Considering the large number of people in the building, I am extremely thankful for all the fire, EMS, local rescue, public safety, everybody who responded and helped everyone get out in a quick evacuation,” Rogers said. “We had the potential for fatalities, if nothing else, from smoke inhalation. With elderly people and smoke inhalation, we could have had an extremely sad situation there.”
Anderson said there were no injuries related to the fire, but one resident was taken to the hospital for an unrelated matter.
Anderson and Phillips said they think increased fire prevention/fire drills at Spruce Village played a role in the fact that were no injuries. Both said officials had noticed a trend in which some people were not taking fire alarms seriously enough, so a program was initiated to increase fire prevention/fire drills, and it paid off.