Personal Stories From Those Who Survived Deadly Fire at Wedgwood Senior Living


http://earthchangesmedia.com/personal-stories-from-those-who-survived-deadly-fire-at-wedgwood-senior-living
When the fire alarm at the Wedgwood Senior Living apartments started shrieking last Sunday about 6:10 a.m., Patricia Mangum paid little attention. False alarms were a regular occurrence at the Castle Hills complex that catered to adults 55 and older.

Mangum, 83, was in her bedroom, while her…

When the fire alarm at the Wedgwood Senior Living apartments started shrieking last Sunday about 6:10 a.m., Patricia Mangum paid little attention. False alarms were a regular occurrence at the Castle Hills complex that catered to adults 55 and older.

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Mangum, 83, was in her bedroom, while her 15-year-old grandson, who had spent the night, slept through the alarm in the living room.

Soon, though, smoke was creeping under her door and filling her apartment, 801. Mangum woke up her grandson, Chris, and threw on some clothes.

About four miles away at the Balcones Heights fire station, firefighters received a call for a pulled alarm at the 11-story Wedgwood. Firefighters there, who often assist Castle Hills responders, had been to false alarms at the Wedgwood before, but the first call was quickly followed by a report of multiple pulled alarms. Then another: victims trapped in the high rise.

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When firefighter Albert Paez arrived at the Wedgwood, he saw people on a balcony on the top story waving for help in the chilly, misty morning. With an oxygen tank on his back, he slung a pack over his shoulder and climbed up the central staircase with three other firefighters to the third floor.

There, the fire raged.

The flames and heat surging from Apartment 302 held back the firefighters. Three firefighters crouched by the door of the apartment, unable to enter.

“As far as you could see, everything was engulfed in flames,” Paez said later.

Paez went down to the second floor to try to get to the fire from the other side.

Up on the seventh floor, Rosa Acosta, 64, had told her 17-year-old granddaughter to go back to sleep when the alarm went off. But the granddaughter, who was staying with Acosta, saw smoke in the hallway.

“Grandma, I’ve got to get you downstairs,” Acosta remembered her granddaughter, Dolores Barrientes, saying.

Acosta, wearing slippers and a robe over her pajamas, stepped out of Apartment 702 into a cloud of black smoke in the hallway. Barrientes grabbed her hips and guided her away from the center of the building to a stairwell at the end of the wing, banging on apartment doors as they went.

The two stepped down seven stories of stairs.

Five minutes after making it to the lobby, Acosta still hadn’t seen her friend Karen Rae Betz, who lived next door in 701. She dialed Betz on her cellphone.

Betz, who would walk the wings of the building for exercise and test muffin recipes on her neighbors, was trapped in her apartment.

“Karen, you need to get out,” Acosta said.

“Rosa, I can’t see,” Betz told Acosta. “I can’t get out.”

Slow evacuation

Five people, including Betz, 74, were killed in the Wedgwood fire, and a sixth, Charlene Lowry, 71, died two days later. Officials have not said if they believe the fire contributed to her death, which was caused by pneumonia and atherosclerotic disease.

At least 20 people were sent to hospitals.

The Bexar County fire marshal’s office, with the assistance of federal authorities, still is investigating what caused the fire, which officials believe started in Apartment 302. Molly Urban, 75, who lived there, died of burns and probable smoke inhalation.

Interviews with more than a dozen residents and people who responded to the Wedgwood pointed to several problems that slowed the evacuation of the apartment complex.

Between 75 and 120 elderly residents — many who had difficulty walking without help — had to be led out by first responders. Some residents on the upper floors were rescued from windows by ladder crews.

The building had 216 residential units and housed about 250 people total, but many of them were gone for the holiday weekend, officials said.

Residents also said they felt no urgency when they first heard the alarm, inured by frequent false alarms.

“It would go off and then it would stop, then it would go off and then it would stop,” said Frances Chiles, 80.

Many residents said the fire has made them question whether people their ages should live in an 11-story building, describing how some people had trouble walking down any stairs — let alone several stories.

The complex, constructed in 1962, also didn’t have a sprinkler system. Building codes updated by the city in 2012 required sprinkler systems, but the complex was “grandfathered” and not required to add them, officials said.

The Wedgwood passed its most recent safety inspection in September, city officials said, but they have not yet released the inspection reports.

Chiles said her children do not want her to go back. She said it was too early to know if she will return to the Wedgwood — which remains closed to residents — but that she would be nervous about returning to her apartment on the 10th floor.

Chiles, escorted by a firefighter, carried her 14-year-old cinnamon-colored Chihuahua, Chula, down the 10 stories, but forgot the cane she usually relies on. She has been staying with her son since the fire.

Wedgwood is not an assisted-living facility or nursing home, and so was not regulated by the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. It essentially is a regular apartment complex, just one that mainly houses seniors.

The building has a central tower, and three wings like spokes. A stairwell winds through the center of the building, and each wing ends in another stairwell, residents and responders said.

The building’s elevators shut down during the fire, as is standard practice.

Looking for answers

Residents and their families have praised the first responders and, in many cases, the immediate actions of Castle Hills city officials. But a number also have said they feel abandoned by Wedgwood management, who, residents say, have not responded to phone calls or requests for information about the status of the building.

Wedgwood managers did not visit at least one of the hotels where residents have been staying until Friday, residents said. Earlier in the week, lower-level staffers who lacked any information had come by, but failed to follow up after taking residents’ questions, residents said.

Residents who left their insurance cards and identifications behind were not sure how to get medical care, and Lowry’s death two days after the fire triggered a wave of fear, residents said. The Red Cross has brought a doctor to the hotels, residents said.

“You can’t get ahold of anybody” from Wedgwood, said Ann Weaver, 78, who has been staying with a friend since the fire. “You would think they would start looking to check on their people.”

Each day since the fire, Weaver said, she has worked to contact Wedgwood staff to try to recover her medication. All of her identification cards also remain in her apartment.

Weaver said she has added her name, address and medications to lists seven times at the Castle Hills City Hall, the gate of the Wedgwood and the building’s front door, but no one has contacted her.

She got a prescription for her blood-pressure medication earlier this week from a doctor working with the Red Cross, but still does not have medications for a thyroid problem or for controlling the effects of the chemotherapy she went through three years ago.

“It appeared to me that the people who run the place just kind of disappeared,” said Weaver, who lived on the second floor.

Weaver still is missing her cat — a 14-year-old black Persian named Alex — but she heard the daughter of a friend may have picked it up.

Local managers have not responded to numerous phone calls from the San Antonio Express-News. The management company, Entrada Management Services, a unit of Los Angeles-based Entrada Partners, had not returned calls until Saturday night.

Entrada Partners released the following statement: “This was tragic. Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected. We appreciate the work of the first responders and all those who are helping.” The company declined to answer any questions.

Crews did sweep the building to pick up medications, but several residents have said they have not been able to get theirs. One problem was that the crews grabbed medications from bathrooms, but missed any that were stored elsewhere, residents said.

One woman said she was left for several days without her anti-anxiety medication that she kept in the kitchen, until a doctor wrote her another prescription.

Wedgwood, which took control of the building back from authorities on Wednesday, continues to pay for hotel rooms for residents without other places to stay, while the Red Cross has been providing food.

A way out

As smoke packed into Apartment 801, Mangum’s grandson heaved open the window. But the apartment was above the fire, and the billowing smoke snaked in through the window.

The two closed the window and took shelter in the bathroom, where they put wet wash clothes over their faces. Mangum had been calling her sister and one of her sons, who were soon at the apartment complex and told responders where Mangum was.

Mangum went to unlock her front door in hopes firefighters would be coming and poked her head into the hallway. She saw a neighbor but barely could make out who he was through the smoke.

“I don’t think we’re going to get out of here,” the man told Mangum, and he headed back toward his room.

Five stories below, firefighters still were knocking down the blaze. Paez had hooked up the hose from his pack to a water pipe in the stairwell at the end of the wing, and was met by complete darkness as he returned to the third floor.

The fireman felt his way as he advanced down the hall, led by the glow of the flames spitting out from Apartment 302. He started to spray the fire, but had limited water pressure because it was feeding off the building’s water supply and was not yet connected to pressurized water at the base of the building.

Soon, Paez heard his low-air alarm go off, meaning he had about five minutes of air left. He headed down to the ground to switch out air tanks.

Brad Tellander, another Balcones Heights firefighter, hooked up water supply lines on the ground and, along with other firefighters, hiked to the third floor. The hallway still was dark, but Tellander could see flashlights dancing through the smoke and hear other firefighters’ low-air alarms.

Flames kept flaring in Apartment 302. A ladder crew fed a hose through the window of an apartment across the hall, which Tellander grabbed to put out hotspots.

The heat had shattered the window, and a river of smoke poured out into the gray morning.

“That room was completely destroyed,” Tellander said later.

Tellander and Paez, two of the estimated 150 firefighters who responded from multiple departments, later searched the fourth and fifth floors, breaking down doors that were left locked. In the stairwell, they saw a firefighter shepherding a woman as she breathed through his oxygen mask, and another two firefighters carrying a man who appeared to be unconscious.

Emergency room

A text message lit up Dr. Mark Sparkman’s phone at 7:37 a.m. at University Hospital’s emergency department. “Multiple inhalation injuries possible,” it warned.

The staff went to work, clearing space in the emergency room and calling in additional nurses, technicians and housekeeping staff.

But University Hospital wound up treating only three patients, all for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning of different severities. One patient had to be sedated and intubated and remained there for several days, hospital officials said.

Sparkman said the first responders’ speed saved more people from becoming patients, but added the fire generally could have been much more devastating.

“That was pure luck,” Sparkman said.

As hospitals were preparing for patients, Mangum and her grandson still were on the eighth floor of the Wedgwood.

They finally decided they could wait no longer and set out to find a way down. They had earlier checked on the central staircase, but the knob was hot and the stairwell was covered in soot, leading them to think the fire might be waiting for them in there.

As they stepped into the hallway with wet wash clothes over their faces, the two, in the panic of the moment and thrown off by the smoke, got separated. Mangum then heard voices in another wing and shouted for help.

A firefighter emerged from the smoke. He led her to a stairwell at the end of another wing, where a second firefighter was waiting to accompany her down. Mangum said she could not leave because her grandson was still on the floor, but the first firefighter told her to go.

“We will get your grandson,” he said.

Mangum, who had a stroke in 2009, made her way down the stairs, putting each foot on each stair, the left, then the right. The shouts of firefighters bounced through the stairwell.

About halfway down, Chris appeared, having caught up with his grandmother. Mangum still is not sure how they got separated.

Mangum stepped into the lobby, about three hours after the alarm went off, her family said.

There, she was met by the shocked and glum expressions of her fellow residents, most wearing only pajamas.

“These people had no shoes on,” said Mary Nourie, Mangum’s sister, who had been wrapping blankets around shivering residents as she waited for her sister.

The image of the cold and shaken residents huddled in their pajamas in the lobby’s movie theater and café remains frozen in many people’s minds. When Acosta made it to the lobby, she looked outside and saw an elderly woman, standing by herself in the rain and looking stunned, wearing just a nightgown.

The victims

Three of the people who died were on the third floor and two on the seventh floor. Lowry, who died two days later, had lived in Apartment 924.

Ramon Villarreal, in Apartment 323, died of soot and smoke inhalation complicating a cardiovascular disease.

He was born in San Antonio but lived for years in Germany, part of the time serving in the U.S. Army, said his daughter and only child, Andrea Villarreal Kardos, who lives in Pennsylvania. He was both a proud Texan and a man who loved Germany, and married a German woman who had been his pen pal.

He was an expert gardener who had a weather vane in his backyard in Germany that featured a Texas flag. He wore Levi’s and cowboy boots, but also was at home in Germany.

The families of Lowry, 73-year-old Jose O. Gonzales and 75-year-old Anita Marie Woodson could not be reached. Gonzales, who also died of smoke inhalation complicating a cardiovascular disease, lived next to Apartment 302.

Betz was a widow who moved from Iowa to San Antonio in 2009 to be near her daughter. She will be buried back in Iowa, her children said.

Urban was born in England, said her former husband, Robert Urban. He was serving in the U.S. Air Force there when they met. The couple had three children, a boy and two girls.

“They’re taking it hard,” Robert Urban said.

Woodson, in Apartment 709, lived right across from Betz, said Acosta, their neighbor. Woodson was known for the hugs and kisses she would give as she greeted people. Acosta had just given the two women Christmas presents of lotions and candies.

“Maybe I should have gone back and knocked on their doors,” she said.

Like other residents, Acosta is not sure if she will return to the Wedgwood. But if she does, she said, she could not live in the same apartment, knowing what happened to the two “just beautiful, beautiful ladies” who lived so close.

Staff Writer Vianna Davila contributed to this report.

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About Earth Changes Media w/ Mitch Battros

Mitch Battros is a scientific journalist who is highly respected in both the scientific and spiritual communities due to his unique ability to bridge the gap between modern science and ancient text. Founded in 1995 – Earth Changes TV was born with Battros as its creator and chief editor for his syndicated television show. In 2003, he switched to a weekly radio show as Earth Changes Media. ECM quickly found its way in becoming a top source for news and discoveries in the scientific fields of astrophysics, space weather, earth science, and ancient text. Seeing the need to venture beyond the Sun-Earth connection, in 2016 Battros advanced his studies which incorporates our galaxy Milky Way - and its seemingly rhythmic cycles directly connected to our Solar System, Sun, and Earth driven by the source of charged particles such as galactic cosmic rays, gamma rays, and solar rays. Now, "Science Of Cycles" is the vehicle which brings the latest cutting-edge discoveries confirming his published Equation.
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