A metal door kept flames out of an assisted-living facility in Tacoma but couldn’t stop smoke from filling the hallways of the building, where 144 seniors were sleeping or starting their days Tuesday.
The early-morning blaze at Life Manor Retirement Community, 1609 S. Union Ave., sent 12 people to the hospital and destroyed a common area housing the kitchen, dining room, library and activity room.
Firefighters responded to the campus about 6:15 a.m. and spotted heavy flames and smoke. They put in a second alarm because more people were needed to help evacuate all the residents in the independent living building.
Some residents were able to get out on their own, but they left behind essentials like medication, warm coats, wallets and identification.
Wilson Franks said he would have liked to have his billfold and glasses but was faring well overall. Dressed in sweatpants and a light jacket, the 72-year-old resident held a half-drunk mug of coffee supplied by Life Center Church and waited for crews to retrieve his belongings.
He was preparing to make pancakes when he heard a noise outside his first-floor door and poked his head out.
“The smoke was getting pretty bad,” Franks said. “I said, ‘It’s time to get out of here.’ ”
Fire crews immediately evacuated everyone on the first and second floors. Those on floors three to seven were asked to remain in their rooms while firefighters cleared the building of smoke. Hours after the blaze was doused, firefighters were helping folks leave the building and reunite with family members.
Investigators believe the fire started near the dining room and activity room and was caused by electrical problems, fire department spokesman Joe Meinecke said.
The fire charred the common area and could have been much worse if not for a heavy, metal fire door that prevented flames from entering the residence hall, firefighters said.
The common area was connected to the residence hall through a covered walkway, which featured a “fire door” that slams shut when hot enough. The door eventually did shut, but “the smoke got through directly into the second floor,” Fire Chief Jim Duggan said.
Grace Schmick, 91, was working on a Sudoku puzzle when she heard the fire alarm blaring. She stuck her head out her front door and didn’t smell smoke, so she retreated back to her puzzle.
Moments later, a firefighter banged on her door and told her to get out of the building as quickly as she could. She grabbed her keys but forgot her coat. A young man she could not identify put a jacket around her shoulders and helped her to a nearby church gym being used as a waiting area for displaced residents.
Doughnuts, coffee and punch were offered to the residents, as well as warm blankets many draped across their laps or wrapped around their shoulders.
Schmick was one of the many who planned to stay with family members while the independent living hall is cleaned of smoke. About 15 will be placed with other facilities through emergency agreements for situations like these, the Rev. Dean Curry said.
“It’s a great example of the community coming together,” he said.
Church leaders said it should be 48 hours before residents on floors three to seven could return home. Those who live on the first and second floors should be able to return within a week.
A repair schedule for the common area had not been determined Tuesday.
Sabrina Boyzuck, whose mother was hospitalized with smoke inhalation, said she’s proud of the seniors who handled the stress so well and of the firefighters who took such good care of them.
Her mom, who lives on the second floor, started to evacuate but returned to her room to grab her beloved poodle. In her motorized scooter, she then placed her hand on the wall and got herself downstairs, where a firefighter escorted her to safety.
“It was a big job getting all those people out,” Boyzuck said. “They all did a good job.”
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653