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Towering Inferno In St. Louis

A fire in a high-rise home for the elderly injured three firefighters and one resident Monday, but officials said it could have been much worse.

"It was our worst nightmare," said Fire Chief Neil Svetanics. "A major fire 200 feet in the air."

The fire broke out in a 21st-floor apartment at midmorning at the Council Towers Apartments, a 29-story complex in Midtown, near Saint Louis University. The blaze quickly spread, forcing the evacuation of upper-floor residents. Many used walkers or pulled along oxygen tanks as they were evacuated.

With flames shooting out windows and smoke visible for miles, 150 firefighters and more than 40 emergency vehicles were called in.

"It was really advanced by the time the first units arrived," said Svetanics. "The occupant of the unit had escaped, but the first fire captain on the scene apparently ran out of air while he was checking the apartment."

Svetanics said the fireman, whose name was not released, was found unconscious on the floor just inside the burning apartment. He suffered burns and smoke inhalation and was taken to Saint Louis University Medical Center, where he was in critical but stable condition.

Authorities said that by Monday afternoon, the injured man had regained consciousness and was responding well.

Two other firefighters and an elderly woman were also hospitalized. The woman was in serious condition. The firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, but their injuries were not considered serious. A few other residents were treated at the scene for minor injuries, mostly smoke inhalation, fire officials said.

Mostly, residents were just shaken.

"We heard the fire alarm and then smoke started coming in under the door," said Carol Cavanaugh, 65, who lives on the 27th floor of the 29-story building. "The whole hall was full of smoke."

It began as a report of a mattress fire in a resident's unit on the 21st floor, Svetanics said. A loud explosion occurred soon after the fire began, and the blaze lapped several floors up the exterior of the building.

Sventanics said several other smaller explosions occurred. It was later determined that the blasts were caused by oxygen tanks bursting in the heat.

Don Beckham, 77, a resident manager of the building, said he was in the lobby when the fire alarms went off. He took an elevator to the 21st floor and found the area filled with smoke.

"The elevator doors opened, smoke poured in and we had to close the doors and go down," Beckham said. "We didn't have masks, we couldn't breathe."

Fire alarms alerted the residents and the upper floors were evacuated, Svetanics said. He said firemen made three sweeps through the threatened area to make sure no one was left behind. Residents in some lower floors were allowed to stay inside.

Beckham said he believed about 250 people were living in the building, which was bing partially remodeled. Many of the residents were retired Teamsters and their spouses.

The fire was out by late morning, and Svetanics said he believed residents of the undamaged areas would be allowed to return to their apartments later in the day.

Written by Ed Schafer
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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