News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 2, 2013

Fire chases ISU students from University Apartments

About 40 residents moved to temporary housing

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — No one was injured, but about 40 residents of an Indiana State University apartment complex off of South Third Street had to be relocated after a fire in a fourth-floor unit Tuesday morning.

“It’s a little surreal, especially during Homecoming week,” said Heidi Staggs, who lived with her boyfriend, Carl Mitchell, in an apartment next door to the one where the fire occurred. Both are students, and both are heavily involved in Homecoming activities.

Their apartment didn’t have fire damage, “but we have lots of smoke damage,” said Mitchell, who learned about the fire on Facebook. Fortunately, their pet rabbit survived.

They were relocating to a residence hall on campus and had to move out their belongings by 6 a.m. today.

The fire was reported at 10:41 a.m. in an apartment on the fourth floor of Unit 4 of the University Apartments complex at 101 Crawford St. The fire occurred in the south wing.

The complex houses primarily graduate students and their families. ISU was able to find housing for all displaced residents, either elsewhere at University Apartments or in a residence hall, officials said.  

The fire was accidental, said Brett Doan, Terre Haute Fire Department assistant fire chief. Occupants of the apartment that caught fire had been burning incense in a small bedroom and were not home when the fire started.

That apartment was heavily damaged by fire; other apartments on the fourth and third floors had smoke and water damage.

Once firefighters arrived at the scene, the fire was out within 15 minutes, said Dan Curley, fire inspector/investigator.

ISU officials say that 28 students and a total of 40 residents (including partners/family members) had to be relocated.

Among the first to arrive at the scene to help ensure occupants got out of Unit 4 safely were law enforcement officers from ISU, Terre Haute police and Indiana State Police, including ISP Sgt. Joe Watts, who was flagged down by a bystander when he was driving near Third and Crawford.

 “We entered the building minutes before the fire units arrived and began evacuating students,” he said. “We were running up the stairs as some students were running down.  There was heavy smoke and low to no visibility. Breathing for us was very difficult,” particularly on upper floors.

“We were very glad to see our brothers in the fire profession arrive,” Watts said.

Smoke and fire alarms also alerted residents to get out.

Several fire stations and more than 30 firefighters responded, said Nick Sarris, THFD battalion chief. Firefighters with self-contained breathing apparatus checked to make sure no residents were still inside.

The housing unit “is a full concrete structure,” Sarris said. The way the structure is built, “you don’t really have potential for a lot of fire to spread, but contents in the structure generate a lot of heat; the concrete holds the heat and it generates a lot of smoke.”

Othman Altheeb, a junior from Saudi Arabia, lives in another wing of unit 4. He was about to go to his apartment when the fire prevented him from doing so. He had to wait several hours to go to his apartment.

Reacting to the fire, he said, “It’s terrifying.”

Gillian Alvear, who also lives in a separate wing, was getting ready for work and heard the fire alarm. “I’m thinking it’s the manual thing that happens the first of the month. I just kind of ignored it and continued getting dressed,” she said.

Someone knocked — she thought it was a relative — but it turned out it was a law enforcement officer telling her to get out. When she opened the door, she could see smoke.

She wanted to take a pet but was told to hurry and get out. She lived in a fourth-floor apartment, but not the wing where the fire occurred.

At 1 p.m., effected residents met at the Wabash Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross — located across Third Street — to receive information from ISU housing staff.

This is the second fire in the University Apartment complex in less than a year. Last October, a fire also broke out in a fourth-floor apartment.

The university’s Early Childhood Education Center is located in another unit of the apartment complex, but it was not affected by the fire.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or