Ashley Lane Apartments residents tell of escaping fire

LaTywana Swan said she saved her late husband’s hair clippers, walking stick and photographs.

“They were too hard to get rid of,” she said, after he died.

But when a fire ripped through her home Tuesday morning at Ashley Lane Apartments in south Wichita, the 39-year-old said she had to leave the mementos behind.

“All I have is a ring now,” Swan said, glancing down at a wedding band on her hand.

“I hate to have to start all over again.”

A fire department official said Wednesday that it will be difficult to confirm what caused a fire that heavily damaged Ashley Lane Apartments early Tuesday morning and displaced dozens of tenants from their homes.

The fire caused an estimated $1.75 million in damage to the apartment building, 2250 S. Oliver, fire Capt. Stuart Bevis has said. Five people were injured, and about 70 tenants lost their homes and belongings in the fire.

Investigators think the fire started on the upper floor in an apartment on the west side of the structure in a sector named Building 8, Bevis said. But the damage is so severe – and so challenging for inspectors to safely reach – that determining the cause won’t be easy.

Fire crews were still monitoring the structure for hot spots on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s just too dangerous for us to be in there,” Bevis said.

‘A dream’

Donnie Brown, 54, said he was asleep when his wife, Gennie Holloman, woke him in the wee hours and told him their apartment was burning up.

He had stumbled to the bathroom to hastily put on jeans, a T-shirt and shoes, but he was blinded by smoke and fell, cracking his head on an iron bathtub.

They barely escaped.

“I thought I was in a dream,” said Brown, who told his story Wednesday at a relief shelter set up by the Red Cross inside nearby Allen Elementary, 1881 S. Elpyco, for those displaced by the fire.

He said he is disabled after 17 years working in custodial services for the Wichita school district, although he works for the Good Neighbor ministry, and for the Salvation Army as a bell ringer during Christmas. His wife worked at Wesley Medical Center until she was disabled by surgery, he said.

“We had to crawl our way out,” said Brown, who was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt brought to him after the fire by his brother because the clothes he escaped in reeked of smoke. The couple lost TVs, family photos, furniture, a phone, DVDs, jewelry – about $10,000 worth of belongings. They had no rental insurance.

“We all made it out just in the nick of time.”

Swan, who also is staying at the relief shelter, said the blare of sirens awoke her. Then she saw smoke pouring from some vents inside her home.

“I put on pajama pants and grabbed my keys,” then ran outside, she said. She wore bright blue medical scrubs and rubber shoes as she spoke Wednesday evening. She said the Red Cross gave them to her because she had no other clean clothes.

She left everything – her purse, identification, medications, furniture and personal belongings – behind.

“I just bought new soaps. … And toilet paper and hygiene products,” said Swan, who was unsure whether she had rental insurance.

“I feel really hurt because I can’t get to it. It’s all really valuable to me.”

Sugar Creek Apartments staff members are working to move displaced residents into vacant apartments in the other, undamaged building at Ashley Lane Apartments. An informational meeting was held Wednesday afternoon.

“We have been trying to do our best to help them,” said Pamila Wisely, resident manager at Sugar Creek.

Brown said the Red Cross has found a new apartment for him and is helping with emergency assistance so he and his wife can move in.

Swan plans to stay at the Red Cross shelter for now. When it closes, she said she hopes she can stay with a friend until her case worker helps her find a new home.

How to help

Most of the residents in the gutted structure lost virtually all of their belongings.

A site to collect clothing and furniture donations for the Ashley Lane fire victims has been established at His Helping Hands furniture bank, 1441 E. 37th St. North. Donations can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Suggested items to donate include: clothing, beds, bed linens, wash cloths, bath towels, pillows, dressers, night stands, kitchen tables and chairs, plates, forks, spoons, knives, cups, sofas, love seats, living room chairs and any other essential household items.

Fire victims include Burmese refugee families who lost everything they own in the fire, according to officials with Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry.

Shannon Mahan, executive director of the refugee ministry organization, said via e-mail that what is needed most right now is money to help provide household and personal items for the families who have lost everything.

Checks should be made payable to the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas with “Refugee Fire Fund” in the memo line. The checks can be sent to Refugee Fire Fund, Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, 835 SW Polk St., Topeka, KS 66612-1688.

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