KENNEWICK -- A wildly burning fire sent residents of a Kennewick apartment complex running from their homes early Saturday morning and destroyed at least four of the units.
Police suspect arson and have arrested the boyfriend of one the apartments' residents.
Richard Hammer, 49, was seen leaving the Kamiakin Apartments on 632 N. Arthur St. just as the fire started, according to Kennewick police reports.
"He was mad at me," said Melissa Fortin, Hammer's girlfriend, who was looking for her dogs Saturday afternoon. She was not home when the fire started, but returned to find her home destroyed an hour or so later.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The fire was discovered by De Anna Ingram when she went outside her downstairs apartment in the D building to smoke a cigar shortly before midnight Friday.
"My bad habit came in handy for once," Ingram said Saturday afternoon outside her apartment.
She saw smoke billowing out from under the door of Fortin's apartment and started screaming as loudly as she could that the building was on fire.
Her brother and roommate, Deloy Mace Jr., heard her and ran outside. He and a man who lives with his pregnant wife above Fortin's apartment grabbed a fire extinguisher outside Mace's apartment and kicked in Fortin's door.
They tried to fight the fire, but the apartment already was engulfed, Ingram said.
Ingram and her brother also tried to rescue a Chihuahua, Taters, from an apartment in the rear of the building but the dog died.
It seemed as soon as people got out of the 16-apartment building, "it wasn't even five minutes and it was engulfed," Ingram said.
Ana Owings who lives in an adjacent building at the complex heard people shouting and screaming to get out. When she and her husband, Marcus Owings, looked out the window they saw flames shooting into the sky, they said.
Kennewick police said the "fire was burning wildly" when they arrived.
Kennewick firefighters, who were contacted at 12:10 a.m., arrived to find heavy smoke and flames and the outside stairwell leading to four upstairs apartments on fire, said Capt. Tom Reich.
Flames destroyed at least two apartments and two more had heavy smoke damage, he said. The four apartments facing the parking lot -- two on the first floor and two on the second floor -- had broken windows, some of them boarded up, Saturday. In addition, firefighters had chopped out part of the wall of the apartment above Fortin's.
The fire was so hot that it melted the headlights of Fortin's car parked nearby and left the windshield of a car beside it crazed with cracks.
Police talked to Hammer early Saturday morning, when they believe he was returning to the fire, according to the Kennewick Police Department. They said he had a head wound and neighbors said his head was bloody.
Hammer told police that he had been hit with a baseball bat but would not tell them more, according to police reports.
Hammer was taken to a hospital for treatment and was under arrest on suspicion of arson, according to police.
Among the apartments that appeared to have had the worst damage were Fortin's, the apartment shared by Ingram and Mace, and the upstairs apartment where Ingram said a couple named David and Jennifer Palmer lived. The couple was expecting a baby in a month and had already stocked up on baby gear, Ingram said.
"The whole situation is sad," she said.
There was no electricity or water service to any of the 16 apartments Saturday, residents said.
Fortin spent the night with friends after leaving the fire scene about 4 a.m. Saturday. Saturday afternoon she was back at the complex asking people if they had seen her dogs. She believes her four dogs and a fifth dog belonging to her boyfriend had been let out of the apartment before the fire started because neighbors who gathered in the parking lot reported seeing them.
By Saturday afternoon, she had not found two of the dogs but believed someone in the complex might have taken them in.
No residents were injured in the fire, Reich said. However, a firefighter had a minor injury to his hand, he said.