Pasco apartment building owner helps relocate fire victims

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJuly 23, 2013 

Linda Guo used the hood of a car Tuesday as her business office.

The owner of the Sacajawea Apartments that were badly damaged by fire Saturday was giving tenants back their deposits and the rest of their July rent.

Receipts and rental agreements were stacked on the hot metal makeshift desk as she worked to help about 60 residents who must find another place to live.

Guo of Bellevue said she's closing the downtown Pasco building because of uncertainty over how long it will take to fix the damage and bring the 63-year-old building up to city codes.

Before the fire she'd been working with Pasco to get a permit after-the-fact for some walls already installed in some apartments.

The city also demanded she show there were proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and that the fire alarm system was serviced regularly.

Tuesday, Guo told tenants the six-story building is not inhabitable because of concerns over air quality from the smoke damage.

She was allowing residents inside for just 15 minutes at a time to retrieve some belongings. Guo said any longer could be risky to their health. Four people already were treated for smoke inhalation the night of the fire.

"We have to be cautious about it," she said. "We don't want anybody to be sick."

Still, some tenants are unhappy and concerned there would be looting.

But Guo said people were orderly when they met with her.

"A lot of people say they are going to be upset," she said. "I don't see a lot of upset people. They are desperate, the same as me."

Monday night, 38 tenants stayed at the American Red Cross shelter at Pasco High School.

Sacajawea resident Katherine Winn, 48, said she hasn't had any clean clothes to change into since the fire.

She said she suffers from degenerative scoliosis, affecting her neck and spine, and has suffered nine strokes.

"It's hard for me to walk, and I can't climb stairs," she said. "And my brother keeps going up and coming back with the wrong stuff."

Though she said the food at the shelter is worse than in jail, Winn is thankful for the help.

"The Red Cross is wonderful," she said. "God bless the Red Cross."

Red Cross spokeswoman Megan Snow said the agency is working with groups including the Benton Franklin Community Action Committee to find permanent homes for the displaced residents, most of them low-income.

"It's kind of our priority," she said.

Snow said the Red Cross also is looking to help others who have camped out outside the apartment building who have not come in for help.

"The extreme trauma and having to be housed in one area, it's not easy for anybody," Snow said.

Guo said she hopes the building can be occupied again soon. She said five of the units have extensive damage from the fire.

But Rick White, Pasco's community and economic development director, said he "doesn't have a clue" how long it could take before people can live in the building again because the entire building will now have to be brought up to code before it can be occupied.

White said Guo added walls to 12 rooms earlier this year without getting a permit. The city required her to apply for a building permit after the fact.

"They basically put walls in some of the units to add additional bedroom space," he said.

The city approved the permit with a number of conditions on July 15. Guo signed it two days before the fire.

The conditions had to be met within six months. They included requiring proof of annual service to the building's fire alarm system and requiring that all walls meet certain fire ratings.

The building permit also noted that the apartment building's existing elevator was broken during a meeting with city officials, and that it must be fixed for fire department access.

And some of the rooms shown on building plans did not have required smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

"Now it's a whole different ballgame, I don't even know if those units got burned up or not," White said. "You can probably take that July 15 letter and kind of lay it over the entire building."

In addition, fire and water damage that could have weakened the structural integrity of the building must also be repaired.

Resident Pamela Jarrell told officials she believes the fire accidentally started after she fell asleep with a lit candle in her room.

Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear said Tuesday that fire investigators have found nothing to dispute that.

"We have taken a real good look at it and we could not find any other information," Gear said.

The same building was damaged in 2004, temporarily forcing out about 100 residents.

Investigators blamed that fire on a meth lab explosion and two people were charged in connection with the blaze.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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