'It was no longer a building on fire - it was a ball of fire'

PORTLAND, Ore. - Federal investigators were called to the scene of a massive fire Thursday morning that leveled a five-story apartment building that was still under construction.

Firefighters expected to be working on the fire at the Monroe Apartments at the corner of Northeast Monroe St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. all day Thursday and into Friday.

No one was hurt, but the blaze was a massive one. Glowing debris and embers from the fire fell all over the neighborhood and people ran from their homes, grabbing hoses to wet their property in case the flames got close.

One neighbor credit's his wife's insomnia for getting them out quickly. Bill Spangle said his wife has a hard time with sleep and this time they were thankful for that.

"Just a little piece of the blinds was open," Spangle said. "And the sky was orange, but it was way too early for sunrise, so she immediately knew that something was wrong."

Spangle's wife called 9-1-1 and by the time she hung up the phone the fire was raging.

"It turned into a fireball," Spangle said. "It was no longer a building on fire - it was a ball of fire."

Neighbors in another nearby home said the noise was so loud, they thought somebody was trying to break into their house.

"My friend said 'Fire, fire fire!' and I woke up in my pajamas," said Joe Adesida. "I was running downstairs and I closed the windows by the stairs so the smoke couldn't get inside the house.

"We're helpless. There's nothing we can do. All our stuff is inside the house."

Ayo Bele Obilene left the house so quickly, he was still without his shoes and glasses hours later.

"When the fire was raging, we could feel the heat," he said. "I looked out at the light and I saw the entire building engulfed, on fire. So I had to run back and put on pants then run out."

"It just goes to show you the power of fire," said neighbor Moulik Kathari.

Fire investigators want anyone with pictures, video or details about the fire call investigator Rick McGraw at (503) 823-3797.

The response

The initial call for the fire, which quickly went to five alarms (the largest possible response by the Portland Fire & Rescue), was placed at 4:14 a.m., and the blaze spread to some neighboring homes. By the time the first crews arrived, the entire building was up in flames and it quickly collapsed.

The heat from the fireball was so intense that the crew quickly realized that if one of the fire trucks parked across the street wasn't moved, the paint on it would melt.

Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Rich Chatman said the fire was so large, the more than 120 firefighters on hand were forced to take a defensive posture. No firefighters were inside the building; instead, they focused on getting water on the outside of the building to prevent it from spreading more than it already had.

Chatman said so much water was needed to fight the fire that crews had to coordinate with the Portland Water Bureau. More than one million gallons of water were used.

The fire was one of the largest in Portland in recent memory. The last five-alarm fire in Portland was at the Thunderbird hotel on Hayden Island in September.

Portland Fire & Rescue's Timeline of Events

  • 4:14 - Call comes in
  • 4:14 - Witness reports all five stories engulfed
  • 4:16 - Second alarm (based on glow, smoke)
  • 4:17 - Engine 13 arrives
  • 4:19 - Engine 13 reports house to the west has flames showing
  • 4:21 - Third alarm
  • 4:21 - Water Bureau is asked to increase pressure
  • 4:26 - Collapse warning
  • 4:28 - Chief 2 asked for emergency tones - impending collapse
  • 4:28 - Fourth alarm
  • 4:29 - Collapse on MLK side
  • 4:30 - Two other sides collapse
  • 4:30 - All engines on scene do a check of firefighters' whereabouts
  • 4:45 - Fifth alarm
  • 5:05 - Fire chief arrives on scene
  • 5:07 - ODOT posts warning to alert drivers
  • 5:08 - Report that the house behind the structure could not be saved
  • 5:21 - Red Cross & TriMet assistance requested
  • 6:03 - NW Natural cuts service to homes in the area
  • 6:07 - Pacific Power cuts service within an eight-block radius
  • 6:15 - ATF agents arrive on scene
  • 6:32 - Recall on fire placed; no more crews needed on scene
  • 8:19 - Shift change: B-shift arrives to relive A-shift
  • 9:36 - Bureau of Emergency Communications (emergency dispatchers) discontinues monitoring

Power outage, traffic closure and water problem

Power was out in an eight-block radius around the fire, but was later restored.

The southbound lanes of MLK Blvd., which were were shut down between NE Fargo St. and NE Morris St., are likely to be closed through Friday morning. Officials are using one of the two northbound lanes for southbound traffic. Northeast Monroe between MLK Blvd. and Northeast Rodney St. will be closed at least through Friday morning.

Sediment from the firefighting effort led to discolored water in Northeast Portland. The city said affected residents should simply run their tap until the water turns clear.

About the building

City records show that the developers, Pavilion Construction, were in the process of obtaining permits for a fire system.

"Thankfully, this massive property loss has not claimed physical injury to the public, construction workers, or the emergency response personnel," the company said in a statement. "The professional actions of the responding Portland Fire Firefighters and the American Red Cross were epic today, containing additional property loss and extending accommodations to those displaced. "

Early indications were that construction materials inside the building contributed to the magnitude and speed of the fire. The building had 46 units and was supposed to be complete in November.

"That under-construction phase is an extremely vulnerable time for a building like that," Chatman said. "They don't have the sprinkler systems, they don't have the drywall - just the normal fire-stops they put in construction like that."

The building was about 50 percent complete when it burned. The company said no employees were at the site when the fire started.

"We've had fires like that before," Chatman said. "We had a large one about 15 years ago in Portland that was a similar situation and it ends up being - especially with that size of building - a big fire that spreads quickly."

The investigation

ATF agents were assisting with the investigation both because of the scope of the fire and because budget cuts left the city without the resources to handle the job itself.

The construction company is estimating a $4 million loss due to the fire.