MADISON HEIGHTS — Drive into The Heights Apartments on the north side of East 13 Mile, west of Dequindre, and hang a right to see a building whose upper story looks like charred black bones at one end.
The freshly exposed framework is all that remains of some units after a fire broke out in the attic around 10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8.
“The cause is still undetermined and under investigation,” said Madison Heights Fire Marshal Shawn Knight. “We’ve been able to rule out the fire coming from the fireplace. Up in the attic, you don’t have much other than electrical lines and cable lines. We haven’t been able to rule those out yet.”
The fire damaged eight or nine units, including five that were “absolutely totaled,” Knight said. The remainder of the 20 units suffered smoke and water damage.
Fortunately, none of the tenants were hurt, nor were any of their pets. Some cats were found hiding in units away from the fire the next day, but it appears everyone is OK.
Now the displaced residents are trying to piece their lives back together.
Management set some up in nearby hotels and apartments. Others moved in with family and friends. The Red Cross is also lending assistance.
“They lost everything, everything they owned in life,” said Darrin Berry, project manager with Statewide Disaster Association.
His team was hauling away debris the day after the fire. They also winterized the building and drained excess water.
“We gave the tenants a helping hand, getting their personal belongings out,” Berry said. “One couple lost their keys, so we went digging through the rubble.”
Jenna DeClercq, regional manager at The Heights, said the displaced families would appreciate any donations of money and food. They can be dropped off at the clubhouse, just past the main entrance to the apartments.
Recounting the night of the incident, DeClercq said one of the tenants stepped out to check his car when he noticed smoke rising from the rooftop.
“He went inside and got some of the residents to help him knock on the doors and get everyone else,” DeClercq said. “It was a group effort.”
Six fire departments from neighboring communities assisted at the scene: Hazel Park, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Troy, Birmingham and Bloomfield Township. A fireman from Birmingham was injured but is doing OK.
Heavy smoke was seen on arrival, with flames rising from the roof. The fire grew.
“People across 13 Mile could see it,” DeClercq said. “The flames were past the electrical lines — that’s how tall they were. I didn’t get here until it was more under control, but even then, there were shooting flames.”
From the rooms below, the firemen could hear the fire burning. However, they didn’t see the full extent of the blaze until they opened the door to the attic.
It took responders about an hour to suppress the bulk of the fire. They then proceeded to address hot spots throughout the structure.
Since the fire originated in the attic, above the living spaces, it went undetected by smoke detectors. Nonetheless, Madison Heights Fire Chief Greg Lelito said he strongly encourages everyone to change the batteries on their smoke detectors twice a year, and if they’re a renter, to have renters’ insurance on everything they own.
Lelito commended the residents for working together to get everyone out safely, and said that if it weren’t for the one man taking the initiative to warn everyone when he noticed smoke from outside, things might’ve ended worse.
“I just thank the residents who lived here and stepped up to knock on the doors and get everyone out as quickly as possible,” DeClercq said. “The residents are taking it hard — their homes are gone — but they’ve come together, and they’re working together.”
Low-income individuals may qualify for free smoke detectors through the Madison Heights Fire Department. They can call the fire marshal at (248) 837-2871.
For more information on how to help those displaced by the fire, call The Heights Apartments at (248) 583-1100.