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City inspectors 'red tag' burned SW Portland apartment building; officials fear collapse

The May apartments on Southwest Taylor showered debris to the street below at one point on Wednesday. Fire officials fear that more of the building could fall.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Firefighters kept vigil at a downtown Portland apartment building after flames tore through the aging structure on Tuesday. They're concerned about the potential for a sudden collapse — presaged by a shower of debris Wednesday afternoon.

There's no question at this point that residents of the 113-year-old May apartments will not be returning. A city engineer red tagged the building Wednesday, meaning no civilians are allowed inside because of the concerns about its structural integrity.

City officials inspected the building Wednesday morning. What they discovered was troubling — ensuring that the building will be demolished if it doesn't collapse first.

"This is an unreinforced masonry building that was effectively being held together by the floors," a fire official said. "These floors are damaged and impacted by fire, flame and water so there's a heavy concern, significant concern we could lose this building at any time."

A portion of the building's east side collapsed Wednesday afternoon, littering the sidewalk and street with debris.

Flames gutted the building throughout the day on Tuesday after a fire that began that morning. For some residents, the only way out was down a fire escape — but even that was a dicey prospect, as multiple residents needed to be rescued from the fire escape by firefighters.

The inferno shut down streets, temporarily closing I-405 below, due in large part to the thick smoke.

"We had a lot of smoke and smelled it, and looked out our window and could see it from the early get go," said neighbor Wendy Rahm.

Rahm will be the first to say that her frustration over the smoke that filled her home pales in comparison to the dozens of residents who lost theirs.

"It's really tough," she said. "I don't know what those people are going to do."

Those people are among the reasons why KGW wanted to speak with the building's owner, but he had very little to say before someone ushered him away.

"I don't know what happened, there was a fire here," he said. "Any fire is unfortunate for the residents."

The destroyed building is now at the center of a forensic investigation. KGW learned that a fire chief in Scappoose who is licensed to fly a drone in Portland will perform a sweep of the building on Friday, helping to determine what sparked the fire — something they used when fire destroyed the old Portland Korean Church building just across I-405 early this year.

RELATED: Scappoose Fire District using state-of-the-art drone technology to help investigations

"He has a smaller drone we're going to take into area where we believe the fire started and they'll fly the drone around and see if we can determine anything from the imagery gathered in that process," a fire official said. "He'll be able to put together 3D images of the room as it sits so we'll be able to come back and look at a good model on the computer rotated around in color."

If the drone isn't able to get a good enough look at the structure, one fire investigator could go inside. However, due to the risk of collapse, specialists will be on hand in case a rescue becomes necessary.

Fundraisers for displaced residents

GoFundMe has verified four legitimate fundraisers, as of Friday, May 19, for tenants in need of help due to the fire. Click through the links below to donate to any of the fundraisers:

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