Miami-Dade County

Some FIU students displaced by apartment fire

A fire at an FIU student apartment complex at Southwest 109th Avenue and Seventh Street displaces students Tuesday December 1, 2015.
A fire at an FIU student apartment complex at Southwest 109th Avenue and Seventh Street displaces students Tuesday December 1, 2015. wmichot@miamiherald.com

A grease fire in the kitchen of a 10th-floor apartment forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents, most of them students at Florida International University, early Tuesday.

One person was treated at the scene for minor hand burns, and the fire was extinguished by the building’s sprinkler system when fire rescue arrived, said Erika Benitez, public information officer with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

The fire caused little damage, but it triggered the sprinkler system, which flooded several apartments and threatened the building’s electrical system, after which a Sweetwater city official ordered the evacuation.

“The fire department arrived immediately, and talked with the residents of the unit, and they determined that everything was OK,” said Susan Jennings, a vice president for EdR Collegiate Housing, which owns the 109 Tower across Southwest Eighth Street from the main FIU campus in West Miami-Dade.

Some residents of the 15-story building said they were awakened by smoke alarms at about 1 a.m. and evacuated immediately. Others said they had no idea there was an emergency until nearly four hours later, when Sweetwater police banged on their doors and ordered them out.

Claudia Miro, a Sweetwater spokeswoman, said city officials are waiting for EdR Collegiate Housing to provide certification from a building engineer that there are no “life safety issues” remaining.

“When they provide us with that certification,” she said, “we can go ahead and let the students back in.”

On Tuesday evening, FIU released the following statement: “This evening residents are returning to their apartments in 109 Towers after a small kitchen fire forced a building evacuation. Only a few students, whose apartments were directly affected, will be relocated until repairs can be done.”

The 109 Tower, a 15-story building with roughly 180 residential units, was first occupied in summer 2014.

Savannah Davis, a senior at FIU, said she lives in the 10th-floor apartment directly next door to the unit where the blaze started.

“It was like a small fire,” she said. “One of the girls was cooking, and it was a grease fire. She tried to put it out with water.”

Davis said she and her three roommates evacuated as soon as the alarm sounded and the sprinklers started gushing water.

The alarms and sprinklers caused some to panic. “We heard a scream,” Davis said. “I think they were just freaked out.”

But other residents said they stayed put because the smoke alarms stopped ringing, and because they live on floors where the sprinklers did not activate.

Jared Magness, an FIU senior who lives with a roommate on the eighth floor, said he awoke to the screech of smoke alarms. When Magness stepped on to his balcony, he saw water cascading from the unit above and fire trucks on the street below.

He also saw firefighters in the hallway, and shot a video with his cellphone. “They were screaming, ‘Where are the stairs?’” Magness said.

I think they were just freaked out.

Savannah Davis, FIU junior

But instead of evacuating, Magness went back to bed, in part because the alarm had stopped ringing. In the video, a voice over the intercom instructs residents to calmly find the nearest exit.

“I thought maybe it was a false alarm,” Magness said. “We’ve had false alarms before when nothing happened. They turned off the alarm, and we went to sleep.”

Firefighters walk through the 8th floor stairway of the 109 Tower at about 1 am after a grease fire in a 10th-floor apartment fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.

About four hours later, Sweetwater police officers were banging on the door.

Magness said he grabbed his book bag and laptop computer. He’s earning a degree in hospitality management. “The first thing I thought about was class.” But, in retrospect, he said, “I could have been dead.”

The building was not evacuated until about four hours after the alarm sounded because a Sweetwater city official had not yet inspected the water damage and declared it unsafe.

Jennings, with EdR Collegiate Housing, said the blaze did not appear serious, and that the company was able to get cleanup crews into the building before it was evacuated.

“Had it been a serious fire,” she said, “they would have gone around their usual business of knocking on doors, looking for people.”

More than 500 FIU students who live at 109 Tower were evacuated from the building on Tuesday.

For many of the students, the evacuation and uncertainty of when they can return brings additional angst to what is already a stressful time. Final exams are this week and next, and many have no family in the area.

Magness, whose parents live in Maryland, said he was thinking of sleeping in his car.

Mariana Gonzalez, a junior majoring in architecture, said her apartment did not suffer a lot of damage. She would have gone to stay with her parents in Boca Raton, but final exams stopped her.

“That’s the only reason we can’t go home,” she said. Instead, Gonzalez was looking into a rumor that FIU would put up some students in dormitories on campus.

Jennings said EdR Collegiate Housing would find hotel rooms or other accommodations for displaced students. She said the company was communicating with residents through social media and email.

“Trust me,” she said, “we're in the student housing business. So we are used to finding accommodations, especially for our international students. We're not going to leave them out in the cold.”

FIU President Mark Rosenberg addressed students at the building Tuesday morning. Rosenberg informed them that towels and soap were available for those who wanted to bathe, and that a free meal had been arranged for displaced students.

“We regret very much this incredible inconvenience,” Rosenberg said, captured in a student video. “We hope that some time later on today you will be back in this building one way or the other. Your safety comes first.”

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