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Fire destroys 113-year-old apartment building in downtown Portland; tenants displaced

The 5-story building at Southwest 14th and Taylor was heavily engulfed in smoke Tuesday morning, and the fire continued to burn into the afternoon.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland fire crews responded to a large fire in a downtown apartment building at the intersection of Southwest 14th Avenue and Taylor Street on Tuesday. Portland Fire & Rescue tweeted pictures of residents being evacuated from upper story windows using ladders just before 11 a.m.

PF&R first tweeted that crews were on scene at 10:43 a.m. Thick smoke could be seen billowing out of multiple upper windows of the 5-story building in photos posted by the fire department, and a plume of smoke could be seen throughout downtown. Flames could be seen at multiple points on the roof of the building as fire crews used ladder trucks to spray water at the building from above.

The street outside the building was shut down, and an adjacent stretch of Interstate 405 was closed for about two hours due to poor visibility from the smoke, according PF&R and the Oregon Department of Transportation's TripCheck map. The freeway later reopened, but the local street closures were expected to last for hours.

"We'll be here all night," said PF&R public information officer Rick Graves.

Speaking to KGW at the scene, Graves said PF&R initially received reports of a heavy fire on the third floor of the building with people on the third floor fire escape, so crews initially prioritized getting ladders up to that location. The fire had begun to extend into the fourth floor.

The incident continued to grow with additional crews and resources being called in over the next two hours, he said. Crews entered the building and began searching for anyone still inside, but had to pull back to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for. They eventually resumed the search.

One firefighter was injured when a window blew out and a piece of glass struck his forehead, Graves said, although he described the injury as minor, and said the firefighter went back and kept working. A KGW crew at the scene witnessed an explosion from the second story of the building that send debris flying into the street.

Another firefighter was sent to the hospital with elevated blood pressure and remains under observation, Graves added.

The fire department also said Portland General Electric had cut off power to the area. PGE's outage map showed 3,707 affected customers near the site early in the day, although that number shrank significantly by the evening.

Credit: Portland Fire & Rescue

Crews were primarily focused on fighting the fire from the outside, Graves said, in part because the building is an unreinforced masonry structure that makes it difficult for fire crews to gain additional access. Fire can also degrade the structural integrity of unreinforced masonry buildings, he said.

"We're really concerned with a structural collapse as well," he said. "We've moved our rigs out of the collapse zone so that if we do in fact have a building collapse, we won't have one of our fire engines or trucks or personnel in that location."

Crews were also particularly focused on protecting the adjacent building, he said, because the two structures are only about four feet apart. 

"We're doing everything we possibly can to make sure we can save that building, and continue to work on knocking the flames down on the fire structure," he said.

Nearly 125 personnel with PF&R responded to the fire.

Credit: KGW

Speaking to KGW on the street outside, one of the building's residents, Damian Warren, said he woke up to smoke in his apartment, got downstairs and exited just as fire crews arrived.

"There was fire coming out of the windows, the windows exploding, I just watched it get worse and worse," he said. "Every time they'd kind of shut something down, another fire would burst up. It's been going on for about an hour now."

Another resident, Sentierra Forbes, said she grabbed her dog and made her way onto the fire escape after seeing black smoke in her apartment and the hallway, but she had to leave two cats behind.

"I don't feel lucky," she said. "I lost all my stuff, it's two years of us complaining to the apartment manager about the conditions of this building and not being taken seriously."

Witness Terri Blanchard said that she first saw the flames coming from the building's third floor.

PF&R told KGW that the fire detection system inside the building was in full alarm, but that residents had grown weary of frequent false alarms and many didn't initially leave. Crews went floor by floor alerting residents that it wasn't a false alarm and that they should evacuate the building immediately, PF&R said.

A recent inspection

The age of the structure makes it more vulnerable to fire, officials told KGW. The building at 1410 Southwest Taylor St dates back to 1910, according to PortlandMaps.

The Portland Bureau of Development Services confirmed that they'd received complaints about the building from residents, and also that an inspector had been on-site Monday — the day before the building caught fire.

According to BDS public information officer Ken Ray, the city received a complaint on December 1 claiming that the building had unaddressed severe leaks, mold and mildew, plus missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, among other concerns.

An inspector went out to visit the building on December 15, issuing the property owner with 10 violations of the city's property maintenance code, although most of them did not not directly correspond with the complaint received by BDS.

The owner was given 30 days to address the most critical violations and 60 days to address minor ones. But BDS did not hear back from the owner that the violations had been addressed for months afterward, Ray said.

"Due to limited staffing, the Bureau of Development Services does not have the resources to re-inspect most buildings on the deadlines set in violation letters," he said in a statement. "It is the property owner’s responsibility to fix the concerns and notify BDS for a re-inspection. That did not happen, and fines began accruing for the uncorrected violations."

The property owner paid the city's fines at the end of February and March, Ray said. As of April 27, the owner owed $1,722.60 in fines.

In April, the city followed up with the property manager about addressing the violations. BDS was told that corrections were "still in the works," Ray said.

Finally, on Monday, BDS returned to re-inspect the property. Ray said that most of the violations cited in December had been corrected, though the inspector did note some things that were unaddressed and added a violation for a fire door that had been propped open.

The unaddressed violations included a fire extinguisher that was missing its break-glass tool, missing emergency lights in the laundry area and northeast corner hallway, and a fire extinguisher in the laundry room with an expired testing an certification label.

City records show that the century-old building was last sold in 2004 for $395,000. Its most recent market value was listed at roughly $6 million.

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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