Father, 4 boys killed in apartment fire
Only hours before a fire killed a 32-year old man and his four young boys and sent their mother screaming into the night, the family had been celebrating the arrival of the New Year in their Redmond apartment.
Only hours before a raging fire killed a 32-year old man and his four young boys and sent their mother screaming into the night, the family had been celebrating the arrival of the New Year in their Redmond apartment, said a neighbor who was with them before the early-morning blaze.
Belinda Phelps, 46, who lives in a different building in the apartment complex, said Saturday that she and her 11-year-old daughter had gone to visit the family in their first-floor unit about 10 p.m. Friday.
The adults "had a few beers and a few laughs and rang in" the New Year as the boys were bouncing off couches and playing in a makeshift tent in the dining room of the two-bedroom apartment, Phelps said.
The boys were put to bed about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, with three of them sleeping in the tent, she said.
Phelps returned to her apartment about a half-hour later and went to bed around 1:30 a.m.
She woke up to the mother's frantic cries.
The fire began about 2:30 a.m. on the ground floor of the Sammamish Ridge Apartments, 14820 Redmond Way, said Lt. Tim Gately with the Redmond police.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The victims' identities had not been disclosed Saturday night, pending their release by the King County Medical Examiner's Office. Police and fire officials said only that a 32-year-old man and four children died in the fire.
The mother, 31, was injured and taken to a hospital.
The mother, screaming and straining against those holding her back, could only watch as her children and husband perished in the fire, friends and neighbors said.
"This was horrific," said Chris Champoux, who lives in a building across from the unit that burned. "What will haunt me forever is the mother's screams for her children."
Phelps, who said she has known the family since they moved to the complex just over a year ago, described the family as "well-rounded" with "good moral values." She said she had become close to the mother.
"Just a shock, a shock that it has come to this," Phelps said.
Phelps said the oldest boy, age 11, attended Rose Hill Junior High School, and that other children ranged in age from 2 to 6, with at least one attending Benjamin Rush Elementary School.
The family had been struggling financially the last few years, after losing a house in Colorado and moving to Redmond, Phelps said.
The husband had worked in the moving business, but cut back on his hours recently and was hired to do maintenance work at the complex, Phelps said.
Tall and thin, he was a "great guy" who would "change a light bulb and be right there," Phelps said.
The mother was a stay-at-home mom, who had previously worked at Mor Furniture, Phelps said.
Danielle VanAusdale, administrator for Mor Furniture in Kent, said the mother had worked for about six months in the children's department.
The mother was quiet, except when she "talked a lot about her family," VanAusdale said.
The couple filed for bankruptcy protection in Seattle in March, according to court records.
Their bankruptcy attorney, Tom S. Hyde, who has offices in the Puget Sound area, said he met with them on several occasions as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.
"Just a nice young couple trying to get restarted," said Hyde, who described them as devoted parents who were apologetic for bringing their children with them because they had no one to look after them.
"They were really nice kids," Hyde said.
"Oh, wow, that is tragic," he said of the fatal fire. "They were a really nice couple with really bouncy kids."
Phelps said that during the New Year's celebration, some noise-making poppers were tossed to the ground and streamers shot into the air, but there were no fireworks.
The father had smoked a cigar and the mother a cigarette, and the lights strung on a Christmas tree were turned on, Phelps said.
But Phelps said she did not know what ignited the fire.
After the blaze broke out, said another neighbor who lives in an adjacent building, the mother "was pretty hysterical."
"She was screaming and yelling, 'My kids are still in there,' " said the neighbor, who identified himself as Nick and asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy.
She was so distraught, it took three people to keep her from running back into the burning apartment, the neighbor said.
Jared Wilson, who lives on the building's third floor, said only about 30 seconds elapsed from the time he first heard shouting until his apartment was surrounded by heavy smoke and he was forced to flee. As he ran down the stairwell, he saw the mother, whose children he often had seen playing.
Wilson said he and another resident grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to enter the smoke-filled apartment. "At that point, the whole place just went up" and they were forced away by the flames.
"It's tough thinking about the fact that she lost her whole family," Wilson said.
Cat Savitzky, a neighbor, described the children as upbeat, energetic and playful.
"I've been trying to teach the youngest to sword fight," she said.
Firefighters battled flames from the first-story unit, but the fire spread to all three floors of the apartment building, according to a joint news release from the Redmond Fire and Police departments. Twelve apartment units were evacuated; all displaced residents have found emergency shelter.
There were smoke detectors but no sprinklers in the building, which was built in the mid-1980s before sprinklers were required, Redmond police spokesman Matt Peringer said. "It appears the alarms did go off because people reported hearing them."
Police do not rule out arson but "nothing indicates that it's suspicious at this time," Peringer said.
Police were using accelerant-sniffing dogs, and they had help from agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who arrived at the fire scene late Saturday morning.
The fire damaged three units in the 96-unit, eight-building complex. The two-alarm fire drew firefighters from Bellevue, Eastside Fire, Kirkland, Redmond and Woodinville.
In June, five family members — four children and a young woman — were killed in an apartment fire in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.
Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore, Nancy Bartley, Sara Jean Green, Steve Miletich and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report, as did Times researcher Gene Balk. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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