Mesfin Yeshewawerk and his wife were settling in for the night Saturday when they heard people yelling and screaming outside their third-floor apartment in SeaTac. He peered out the window and saw smoke and flames.
Barefoot and wearing only pajamas, they grabbed their 2-year-old daughter and ran. The closest stairway was already ablaze so they headed to the far end of the building. With his wife and daughter safe, Yeshewawerk, 38, started back to see if he could grab any of their possessions, but it was too late.
“The fire was at our door,” he said Sunday, gathered with relatives across from the smoldering remains of a 48-unit building at the Hanover Apartments.
Four people were injured in the blaze, two critically and two seriously, said Capt. Joe Root, public information officer for the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority. An infant was among the injured. About 80 people were displaced.
Harborview Medical Center spokesperson Susan Gregg said three of the injured people were treated there: an infant who has been discharged, an adult female who is in satisfactory condition and an adult male who was upgraded overnight from critical to serious condition. The condition of the fourth victim was not known Monday.
Authorities suspect arson is to blame. A resident of the building was arrested and booked into the King County Jail, the Fire Authority said in a statement Sunday evening.
The fire in the 3100 block of South 192 Street was reported at about 11:20 p.m. and mostly extinguished by 1:30 a.m. Firefighters were standing by Sunday in case of flare-ups.
Yeshewawerk and his family lost everything — including the new Prius he had just bought and painted bright yellow to use as a cab. The flames and heat left it a twisted hulk. He was dressed Sunday in clothes and shoes borrowed from a friend and wondered what to do next.
“My ID, all our clothes, computers, everything is gone,” he said. “I don’t even have my phone.”
Watson Ropi, 20, was sitting in his car outside the building when flames began licking up from the ground floor. He called 911, and he and his mom and aunt began screaming to warn the residents. Their apartment was unscathed, but Ropi said that when his uncle pulled an exterior fire alarm, nothing happened.
“It was really hard to let everybody know to get out of their apartments,” he said. “The alarm was supposed to be loud enough for everybody to hear in the whole apartment complex.”
Yeshewawerk also said he didn’t hear any alarm.
In a text message, Root said apartment buildings are required to meet the fire code at the time they are constructed. “In addition, each unit should have a smoke alarm,” he wrote.
The apartment’s management did not immediately respond to messages left seeking comment Sunday.
Among those injured was Billy Thomas’ grandnephew. Thomas, of Des Moines, was at the complex Sunday, checking on the younger man’s car and surveying the damage. He said his grandnephew was burned as he and his girlfriend and infant son ran from the building, and is being treated at Harborview.
The car, which was parked in the second row away from the building, looked OK at first, Thomas said — then he noticed that the brake lights were melted.
Puget Sound Fire Division Chief Pat Pawlak confirmed the fire started on the first floor and spread up and out. Residents were reportedly jumping from the second floor of the three-story building, the fire authority said in a news release.
The bulk of the fire damage was to the central part of the building, with units on each end largely spared. Many apartments were also damaged by water used to fight the fire, Pawlak said. In total 28 units were damaged, according to the Fire Authority.
With no utility service, all residents were evacuated. Ropi and his family were among several who returned Sunday to retrieve their property from undamaged units, but he said it is unlikely they will be able to ever move back in.
“The manager told us to take all our belongings because they might be tearing down the building,” he said.
Ropi also lived in the complex, in a different building, in 2016 when another fire struck. City permit records show the apartment complex suffered fire damage at least four times in the past 20 years.
KIRO 7 reported that 44 people were displaced and one injured in the 2016 fire. After that, the complex made repairs throughout one building at a cost of $350,000, records show.
KIRO 7 also reported that two people were killed in a 2009 fire at the complex, then known as Emerald Place Apartments. That year, the owners made $1.5 million worth of repairs, and in 2010 installed a fire alarm system, according to city records.
The complex does not have a sprinkler system, property records show.
Red Cross volunteers were on site Sunday, helping arrange accommodations for displaced residents and providing financial assistance, said volunteer Austin Gamache. He and several colleagues came from Pierce County to help, because so many families were affected by the fire.
“We want to make sure everyone has a place to stay,” he said.
Seattle Times reporter Mike Reicher contributed to this report.