Fire damages apartment units

A fire on Tuesday afternoon damaged the top unit of a three-story apartment building on the 2700 block of Broad Avenue.

The family that occupied the apartment had been in the process of moving out and wasn’t there at the time of the blaze, according to Steve Michelone, assistant city fire chief.

Ron Smith, a passing worker from the Altoona Water Authority, alerted the family that occupied the second-floor apartment, after seeing flames and smoke from the street, so they could leave safely, Michelone said.

The first-floor apartment was unoccupied, he said.

Firefighters arrived to find the third floor “fully involved,” but contained the blaze there – although smoke and water might have damaged other areas of the building, according to Michelone.

The cause was undetermined and under investigation, Michelone said, about 45 minutes after the alarm.

James Walter was in the second-floor apartment with daughters, Layla, 3, and Samara, 2, when the authority worker came up and told him they had to leave, Walter said, as he sat glumly on the bottom step of a side-door stoop across the street.

“I grabbed the important things,” Walter said. “The kids.”

Smith, who was on duty for the authority, had been several blocks away and was going to turn onto 24th Street when he looked down Broad Avenue and saw smoke.

He might not have seen it, had not a PennDOT contractor recently done a radical – and controversial – pruning of trees on the avenue in preparation for paving, he said.

He drove to the building and saw smoke coming out the third-floor window.

He talked briefly to someone out front who was talking to the 911 center on a cellphone, then went in to see if anyone was in danger.

On the first floor, he yelled, knocked on doors and looked into rooms that were open, and saw no one.

Then he heard something from the second floor.

He went up and yelled some more, and someone – it was Walter – came out onto the landing.

He told Walter he needed to leave, that the building was on fire.

Walter went back in and shut the door, perhaps confused or disbelieving.

So Smith opened the apartment door himself, saw the kids and told Walter he needed to get out now.

At that point, Walter reacted and started down.

By that time, the smoke was pouring down the steps from the third floor.

“If he [Walter] would have waited any longer, it would have been pretty rough,” he said.

Walter told Smith the people above him had moved out the day before, but Smith yelled for a while and tried to get up that set of steps, but it was too much.

Walter left behind plenty of possessions that are susceptible to water damage, he acknowledged.

New owners recently took possession of the building and told all the tenants they had to leave, because they were going to renovate, Walter said.

He was planning to leave in a week or two, he said.

He and the girls would be staying with family Tuesday evening, he said.

Michelone had no damage estimate.

Red Cross workers provided drinks to firefighters and wet towels to drape over their heads as they rested between shifts in the building.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.