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February 28, 2014

Blaze hits Sullivan Senior Complex: One dead in tower fire

Several seniors injured, dozens displaced from Sunrise Towers

TERRE HAUTE — One person died, several injured and dozens displaced after a fire Thursday at a housing complex in Sullivan, authorities have said.

Fire Chief Rob Robertson of the Sullivan Fire Department, with a solemn expression, told the Tribune-Star at the scene that one male has died from the fire at Sunrise Towers, which was reported at about 12:30 p.m.  

The victim was identified as Bruce Thompson, Robertson said, and Thompson likely died of smoke inhalation, the fire chief said.

Sandy Thompson, a resident on the third floor, was inside the Sullivan High School gym, to which she and other residents were evacuated Thursday afternoon when she told the Tribune-Star about her ex-husband’s death.

“I was numb [and] scared,” she said.

“They [police] told me at the hospital,” she said of how she found out. She was asked by police to identify the body, but an identification had already been obtained from the victim’s prosthetic arms, said Thompson, who received hugs and sympathies from her fellow residents.

When she heard what was happening, she immediately dialed Bruce Thompson’s room number on the fifth floor, but “I couldn’t get him on the phone,” Sandy said with sadness in her voice. “It was scary.”

Sandy said she and Bruce have lived in the complex for eight years. She also took care of him, she said.

“He was a good man,” Sandy said of her former husband.  

Several people were injured from the fire and taken to the hospital, Robertson said, and smoke inhalation was a main cause of the injuries.

Sunrise Towers, a seven-story facility whose residents are mostly senior citizens and people with disabilities, is operated by the Sullivan Housing Authority.

The main fire was in one room on the fifth floor, facing the north side of the building, but the fifth and sixth floors were also filled with smoke, Robertson said. There was also water damage in the first, third and fifth floors, he said.

As of late Thursday night, the cause of fire was still undetermined, and an investigation, which includes the fire marshall, was ongoing.

‘Very smoky’

About 91 rooms in the building were evacuated “for the safety of the residents,” Robertson said.

One of them was Dana Eslinger, who said she has been living at the building’s top floor for a little more than a year.

“I heard an alarm in the hallway,” Eslinger said, then later, “they were pounding on the door telling everyone to evacuate.”

“I grabbed my coat, grabbed by pocket book,” and got out of the room, she told the Tribune-Star inside the Sullivan High School gym.

On the way out of the building, she saw one lower floor, which she described as “very smoky.”

Community coming together

Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb said the residents were first taken to Court Plaza, another housing authority facility across the street from Sunrise Towers. Then, they were taken to the Sullivan High School gym before being transported by Southwest School Corp. buses to the gym of the building that used to be Central Elementary School, the future home of the Sullivan Civic Center in Sullivan Central Park.

Sullivan, Lamb said, is a close community, and the residents are like family to him. He recalls speaking at an event in Sunrise Towers, a recognizable downtown building, just last week.

“My heart goes out to them [residents and families],” the mayor said.

A shelter was set up by the Sullivan County Salvation Army at the gym of the former school.

Cots, pillows and blankets were being prepared Thursday afternoon by about 10 Salvation Army volunteers as dozens of survivors sat inside the gym.

“We are prepared to house residents overnight,” said Matt Cress of the Sullivan County Salvation Army.

While more than 90 rooms were evacuated because of the fire, Cress said that about 10 to 12 people were expected to stay at the shelter overnight. As of Thursday night, many of the survivors have found a place to stay.

“Most people have found shelter with family,” Cress said.

The Community Kitchen at First Presbyterian Church prepared dinner Thursday for the survivors, Cress said.

The Salvation Army has been conducting trainings in preparation for emergency situations such as Thursday’s fire, so “we can meet the needs of our community,” Cress said.

But it was nice to see “the community of Sullivan coming together to help in a time of need.”

Help from surrounding areas came, too.

In addition to Sullivan County Fire Department, Sullivan City Police Department, Sullivan County Emergency Management, units from Hymera, Shelburn and other areas also assisted.

“Everybody did a good job,” Robertson said. He would like to thank all the units for all their help.

“It’s a sad day for the city of Sullivan,” Lamb said on Thursday.

But he encouraged citizens to continue praying for the housing authority residents and families. He also extends a “big thank you” to all the agencies involved and praised the smooth process of the evacuation.  

It was a tragedy for the community, he said, but he takes comfort in “knowing that there’s people out there to take action.”

“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but at the same time, we’re a community that does pull together.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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