HIGHLAND — For dozens of residents, the day they witnessed a blaze consume their homes, belongings — and even beloved pets — will never be forgotten.
Smoke poured into the sky on Feb. 8 as firefighters battled the flames that spread throughout a 25-unit apartment building in the Hamptons in Highland Apartments past sundown. By the night's end, firefighters' uniforms were coated in frost as the mist from the hoses froze in 15-degree temperatures and coated nearby firetrucks in ice.
The fire displaced 45 people and killed animals, including two cats and a bird. No residents or first responders were injured.
Resident Rich Bierman, of Highland, rushed in to to save his two cats from his ground-level apartment before it became too late. During the rescue, he said, water was raining from his ceiling as firefighters worked to extinguish flames in the units above his.
While they no longer live in the same building together, Bierman said the former tenants are still looking out for each other.
“Some tenants have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bierman said. “Some of them can't bring themselves to drive past the complex.”
Bierman relocated to another apartment building in the Hamptons in Highland Apartments, like some of the other residents. Others, he said, have found housing in nearby areas and towns.
While he and his pets escaped with their lives, Bierman's parents's urns remain among the wreckage, among other meaningful belongings.
“I can deal with the loss of my material possessions, but it's the personal things that you can never replace that hurt,” Bierman said.
The fire broke out on a third-story apartment at the 9500 block of Hampton Drive, spreading to other units in the building. The other 18 buildings in the apartment complex were unharmed.
Highland Fire Chief David Timmer said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and the cause won't be determined for another week. The majority of the building was declared unsafe to go inside, he said.
Sandra L. Barber, Hampton in Highland Apartments property manager, said based on structural engineer reports, more than half of the building is being demolished with the remaining section being gutted. Within a year, Barber said, they hope to reopen a brand new building.
“Unfortunately, there was a large portion of the building deemed unsafe and no one, including the fire department, could enter those hazardous areas. For the residents who resided in those locations, it was impossible to retrieve anything for them,” Barber said. “We understand this was very devastating for the residents. For the remaining apartments, the residents gave us lists of personal items to retrieve for them. With the assistance of the fire chief, most of the items they requested were returned. Due to the fire, smoke, water damage, freezing weather and hazardous surroundings throughout the entire building, the residents cannot be allowed access without risking their safety.”
Barber said the apartment complex has also issued checks, gift cards and other items to displaced residents to help them in their recovery.
However, with the tragedy comes a silver lining, American Red Cross of Northwest Indiana Executive Director Kristin Marlow-Kellemen said.
“It's horrible when tragedies like these happen, but I hope some good will come from it all,” Marlow-Kellemen said. “It may pave the way for a collaborative new way to connect services and donations to victims of house and apartment fires.”
Thanks to the community's efforts, she said, cases for the victims were closed faster than any other apartment fire case, meaning each tenant was able to quickly establish a long-term recovery plan and find new housing.
"One of the biggest reasons is all of the nonprofits such as the churches and the North Township Trustee's Office coming together to provide resources,” Marlow Kellemen said. “We've been involved in many apartment fires, and this was by the far the quickest recovery we've seen, and it's attributed to the family assistance center that was collaboratively put together.”
American Red Cross of Northwest Indiana, the North Township Trustee's Office, Community of Christ, Lincoln Street Christian Church, Life Point Church and many others came to the aid of the victims, arranging shelter and donating food, clothes and other supplies. A “one-stop shop” called Hope for Highland served housing, government aid, financial, food, clothing, transportation and other survivor needs out of Community of Christ Church at 8629 Kennedy Ave. through March 15.
“There was a huge outpouring of support,” Bierman said. “There was an entire church area filled with clothes and food. ... Everyone came together.”
Just 30 minutes after Hope for Highland closed its doors last weekend, Red Cross staff and community members held a meeting to discuss paving the way for future partnerships.
“This could be a model for future recovery efforts,” Marlow-Kellemen said. “We just need more folks to partner with.”