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Cause of fire determined at retirement center that left 1 person dead in St. Helens

Local and state investigators determined the fire to be accidentally human caused. Oxygen cylinders played a role in a resulting explosion.

ST. HELENS, Ore. — Firefighters responded to a large fire that broke out at a retirement center in St. Helens early Wednesday morning. Columbia River Fire & Rescue said one resident died.

Crews with Columbia River Fire & Rescue arrived to the Columbia Hills Retirement Center on Pittsburg Road around 12:36 a.m. and found six units on fire shortly after an explosion inside the building.

Resident Tim Minikel lives in a different part of the complex, but witnessed the explosion after coming outside.

"There was a little bit of a fire but then there was big huge boom and that was scary," said Minikel.

Firefighters pulled six people from the building inside, but one person died. Five residents were taken to hospitals, but fire officials have not released information about their condition.

A police officer and a firefighter were taken to the hospital with injuries that were not expected to be life-threatening and have since been released.

In an update Friday, state and local fire investigators determined the cause of the fire to be an accidental human caused fire. The explosion that occurred during this fire was caused by oxygen cylinders stored in the apartment of origin. 

Columbia River Fire & Rescue also reported Friday that the facility had working fire detectors and that the system was active. The facility did not have a sprinkler system, the agency said, but pointed out that sprinklers were not a code requirement at the time the facility was built.  

Mike Gorsuch, the battalion chief of Columbia River Fire & Rescue, spoke to KGW about the challenging rescue operation.

"Rescues were done on the backside through windows, pulling people out as fast as we could get them out," Gorsuch said. "Most of the evacuations we could walk, but very slowly. There were quite a few that we had to go get wheelchairs and wheel them over and there were quite a few that we had to carry. All of the rescues had to be carried. So as we pulled them out of the back, our firefighters had to carry them over to here, so that we could get them to area ambulances."

Crews were able to get the fire under control within about two hours. 

Gorsuch said part of the building collapsed; a photo of the building shows a portion of the roof collapsed and part of the building appears to be destroyed.

Credit: KGW

Evacuated residents were transported to a hotel and 23 of them received assistance from the Red Cross.

The identity of the fire victim who died has not yet been released, but Minikel believes he knows who they were.

"Well I’m sad that it happened to anybody it’s terrible,  and the person that I think passed was very infirmed."

There were 35 firefighters who responded to the blaze, including from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Portland Fire and every fire department in Columbia County.

Local and state fire investigators spent hours on Wednesday going over the scene, trying to determine the cause of the fire and explosion.

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