COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Two weeks after a fire ripped through a senior living community, trapping multiple residents and leading to the death of an 89-year-old woman, tenants are briefly returning to their homes to collect their belongings before the building closes its doors for at least two months.
Residents of Regency Tower learned last week that the cleanup task ahead was a much longer uphill climb than initially thought. While workers assessed the damage following the May 24 fire, they discovered that not only had asbestos been present in the building prior to the fire, the fire had disturbed it and created an air hazard. Until the building is restored to safe living standards, property manager Cherie Pearson said it would have to be closed to tenants.
For the next few days, residents living on the ninth floor and lower will be allowed in between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. to get their belongings. At 5 p.m. June 14, the building will be shuttered until work is complete.
"After that date [the 14th], the entire building will be shut down and evacuated like it is now for those remediations and repairs and renovations and that kind of thing," said property manager Cherie Pearson. "[Floor] 10, for the most part, is completely destroyed. Unfortunately, those folks are going to be displaced.”
It wasn't the news residents were wanting to hear. Many had hoped to be back in their homes by the 14th.
"None of us know what to do," said 80-year-old Andrea Hubchik, who lives on the fourth floor. "Some of us have not been able to get in and get any clothes. It's like losing your house. No matter where you're living, you've lost it. ... We all cried a lot."
"I have the clothes on my back," said 65-year-old Richard Wetzig, who also lives on the fourth floor.
The cause of the devastating fire remains undetermined, the Colorado Springs Fire Department has said, though foul play is not suspected.
"There is no evidence or reason to believe that the fire was the result of suspicious circumstances," The Colorado Springs Fire Department put in a release.
Investigators did learn the fire started in the hall closet between the living space and the bedrooms of an apartment on the 10th floor of the 11-story building. It spread quickly from there.
"I was sitting on my couch ... and they come pounding on the door, 'Fire! Fire! Get out! Get out!'" said 63-year-old Cynthia Keene, one of more than 120 Regency Tower residents now displaced from her home.
Keene told 11 News she grabbed what she could and ran at the door.
"The whole section of the top part of the building was on fire. ... Fire just took off. For some reason, it just took off."
The blaze started just two stories above where 78-year-old Louisa Rayford lives.
"I saw smoke in the front of the building in the back of the building. Black smoke," Rayford said.
With elevators out, Rayford, Keene and others escaped down several flights of stairs.
"People like me have a hard time going down and up the stairs," Keene said. "I had to hang onto the railing and balance myself with the other arm to keep from falling forward."
"I got wet by the time I got out. That was kind of scary," said 88-year-old Jacque Baugbeugman, who evacuated from the second floor.
Not everyone could get out on their own. Firefighters used ladders to rescue five residents from the upper floors.
Two people were taken to local hospitals for smoke inhalation and four others were treated on site. Five days after the fire, it was confirmed that one of two hospitalized, Darlyne Justesen, had died. Doctors told Justesen they could treat her, but it would be a difficult recovery, grandson Karl Michael Roe told 11 News partner The Gazette.
"She knew it was her time," Roe said.
One cat also perished in the fire.
Click here to donate and help the people displaced through Silver Key.
Regency Towers is located near 8th Street and Arcturus on the southwest side of Colorado Springs.