BLOOMINGTON — James Slotkowski was sitting in his living room on a Sunday night in March when the police knocked on his door.
Officers with the Bloomington Police Department told Slotkowski to evacuate his second-floor, two-bedroom apartment because the building that hosted it was on fire.
"They said I didn't have time to grab anything and they wouldn't let me go back up ... but I was able to help some people living below me," Slotkowski recounted to The Pantagraph.
"There was an older woman with a cane, an older gentleman in a wheelchair and another older gentleman," Slotkowski said. "I helped them get out to the sidewalk, took them to the clubhouse where it was warm."
Slotkowski, his elderly neighbors, 33 other residents were among the crowd that watched March 14 as their building in the west Bloomington Traditions Apartments complex became engulfed in flames.
No injuries or fatalities were reported in the blaze, which consumed the 20-unit structure's attic space and roof.
The late-night fire and how it ripped through the building for four hours were the focus of a Pantagraph investigation in April, which raised questions about the building's construction.
Those questions were tied to observations made by a city building inspector and by fire officials about the building's construction, including the use of attic draftstopping — a method of subdividing a concealed space's total area to combat the migration of fire.
City officials previously said because the observations were made based on charred and burning materials, they shouldn't be considered a definitive explanation for how the fire spread.
Now, months after the blaze, the complex has been sold to an out-of-state nonprofit housing organization, and an official cause of the fire and theory of its spread have been determined, according to records obtained and reviewed by The Pantagraph.
But some former residents, like Slotkowski, a project manager with a Michigan-based general contractor, said they still have concerns about the fire's spread, and anxieties about the residents who still live in the complex's 21 remaining buildings.
"I wish I knew what happened back when it was built, like to know who in the city passed the building plan, who inspected and approved it," Slotkowski said. "Seeing how that fire spread and burned, it's very highly likely (the building) was built with no firewall up there."
Fire's official cause
The March 14 blaze in the 200 block of Reeveston Drive was ignited by "improperly disposed of cigarettes," according to a fire investigation report filed by Bloomington Fire Department investigator Charles Casagrande.
Casagrande, through interviews with residents and inspection of the fire scene and burn patterns, concluded that the fire originated "on the exterior (first floor) patio" of an apartment, "along the west wall," according to his report, obtained by The Pantagraph through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Pantagraph is not revealing the specific apartment where the fire started, or the names of the residents who lived there.
The first materials to ignite were "miscellaneous combustibles and paper products" around a set of wooden planter boxes, where cigarettes were disposed, Casagrande wrote.
The patio planter boxes, Casagrande wrote, were stacked on top of a "cat crate with a colorful blanket that covered it." Also on the patio was an aerosol can and "multiple empty cigarette packages."
Fire spread theory
Casagrande in his report concluded that after the fire ignited on the patio, it quickly spread upward to another patio and eventually the attic space.
"Movement and Intensity patterns located within the patio indicate an upward and outward spread of fire from the western most wall of the patio along the vinyl siding, to the underside of the patio to the apartment above, across to the support column and into the vented soffit leading to the attic space," Casagrande wrote.
He also wrote that while watching the active blaze, he "observed that the fire has self-vented through the roof from the center all the way to the east side of the complex."
And Casagrande found that although the building did not have a sprinkler system, it did host smoke detectors in working condition.
He also noted that "there are fire stops located within the attic space of the complex" and that the fire stops run from north to south and are located in between each section of apartments."
But Casagrande also wrote: "There are no fire stops separating the north from south apartments."
Those observations conflict with observations made by the city building inspector the night of the fire.
He wrote in notes to a field inspection report that there was "only (one) sheet of drywall between units," that the "attic space was not smoke/fireblocked per 1,000 (square feet) and the drywall in attic areas seemed to stop halfway up."
The 2021 International Building Code mandates that the building's attic and the floor and ceiling joists must be equipped with fireblocking and draftstopping. Both refer to a range of materials, including plywood, drywall and blankets of mineral wool.
The principle behind both is to build concealed spaces so that air pockets don't exist to fuel fire's spread, or to restrict air enough to confine flames to a single area if a fire does start.
In attics and roof spaces, according to the building code, draftstopping must be installed to subdivide the areas into spaces no bigger than 3,000 square feet.
In floor and ceiling assemblies, draftstopping must be installed to subdivide the areas into spaces no bigger than 1,000 square feet.
Chris McAllister, who heads the building safety division of Bloomington's Community Development Department, has previously said he can't definitively speak to the inspector's observations.
In an April interview, he emphasized that when the complex was built in 2003, it had been issued a Certificate of Occupancy, which he said "implies that fireblocking and draftstopping was in place at the completion of construction."
Apartment complex sold in July
The charred building was demolished in the first week of July. Later that month, the owners at the time of the fire, Dominium Management, sold the complex to Harmony Housing.
Harmony Housing is a "mission-driven nonprofit owner of affordable multifamily real estate focused on the acquisition and preservation of affordable housing properties serving low and moderate income families and the elderly" based in Douglasville, Georgia, according to its website.
The sale was completed July 28, with a purchase price of $39,150,000, according to county property records. Harmony also recorded a $33,280,000 mortgage for the property, records show.
Karen Marotta, a spokesperson for Greystone, in an email said that despite the fire, the complex's "sale continued and closed as planned."
She added the complex "will continue to be an affordable housing rental property" and that "the space where the building occupied will be transformed into usable amenity space for residents."
Marotta did not offer a timeline for reconstruction or respond to questions related to estimated damage costs from the fire. She also did not respond to questions about the fire prevention safety of the remaining buildings.
Residents still displaced
Slotkowski, who had been subleasing his apartment while working on a project in the Twin Cities, is currently living at the nearby Ramada Limited Bloomington Hotel.
He said that immediately following the fire in March, the Red Cross distributed $500 vouchers to each resident to cover housing and relocation costs.
"Those really didn't do anything for anybody," Slotkowski said, noting that $500 translates to about a week of hotel stays.
Because he was subleasing the apartment, Slotkowski didn't have renters insurance, which could have reimbursed him for the assets he lost in the fire. He estimates his losses at around $20,000, and said other residents likely didn't have insurance, either.
"I am kind of blessed that I have a job and I do get a per diem," Slotkowski said. "But I sit there and think about the other residents. One of the single moms in my building, she said she lost everything."
Slotkowski said he saw that woman at the hotel the week after the fire, but hasn't seen her since.
"The day we signed over our properties, I remember she said she was now homeless," Slotkowski said.
In response to a question on whether Greystone would offer discounted rental rates or financial assistance to people displaced by the fire, Marotta said: "the previous owner aided the displaced residents prior to the sale."
Slotkowski said he's "very disappointed with the way things were handled" and that he's concerned for the safety of people still living at Traditions, because the other buildings were likely built "identical to the one that burned."
"And that fire definitely disrupted my life," Slotkowski said. "But it is what it is."
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Contact Timothy Eggert at (309) 820-3276. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyMEggert