Oklahoma Firefighters Make Dramatic Rescue at Meth-Lab Blaze

Posted: 03-11-2009
Updated: 03-11-2009 10:39:10 AM

Tulsa World, Okla.

A two-alarm meth-lab fire at an apartment complex early Tuesday seriously injured four people, including a woman who was not breathing when firefighters rescued her from her smoke-filled apartment.

After the dramatic rescue, emergency workers revived the woman, who had been trapped in the residence next door to the unit that contained the meth lab, Fire Department officials said. She was taken to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition, Capt. Michael Baker said.

Two other victims were listed in serious condition, and a fourth was in critical condition. Their names had not been released by Tuesday night.

The fire at the Royal Arms Apartments, 5132 S. Norfolk Ave., was Tulsa's second large fire that resulted from a meth lab in nine days. Last week, police evacuated several houses near 37th Place and Riverside Drive when someone apparently set a meth lab ablaze in an attempt to conceal it from police.

Firefighters responded to the Royal Arms complex, which is just south of Interstate 44 between Riverside Drive and Peoria Avenue, about 4 a.m. Tuesday, Baker said.

Donna Leverette, whose home was protected by a fire wall, said she awoke to find the apartment manager and a firefighter pounding on her door.

"I walked out into the parking lot and the flames were shooting way up into the air, and the way that the wind was blowing, we knew they were all just going to be gone," Leverette said of the apartments.

She said she stood outside the burning building at a safe distance but close enough to feel the heat from the blaze as she watched firefighters stream water onto the fire from two sides.

"To be that close to it and to be fearful that your home was going to be included. You just stand there thinking that you can't believe that everything you own is going to go up in flames," Leverette said. "And the firemen were amazing."

Two people escaped from the burning building and were taken by ambulance to Hillcrest Medical Center.

But authorities learned that a 55-year-old woman was trapped in the apartment adjacent to the one where the fire started. Dispatcher Jeff Pestel, working at the Tulsa Fire Department's Alarm Office, stayed on the phone with the woman for more than 10 minutes as firefighters worked to get to her.

Pestel told her to check the door to see whether it was hot before she tried to leave her apartment.

Baker said: "The door was so hot when she touched it, she could not get out. So she stayed in her bedroom and got basically behind the bed and covered herself up with blankets and remained on the phone with the fire dispatcher the whole time.

"The fire dispatcher heard her progress from being able talk to him, and as she began to breathe in more and more smoke, she eventually went unconscious."

Firefighters from Engine 26 were assigned to search and rescue, Baker said.

The fire had burned the numbers off the apartments, making it hard to tell one unit from another.

"We knew what apartment she was in, but the fire had literally destroyed the tops of the doors and burned the doors off," Baker said.

"Initial reports are that they had to fight their way through some serious flames to get in there to get to her," Baker said. "She was on the floor in the back bedroom, not breathing, when they found her."

Fire Equipment Operator Chad Meyer picked her up and carried her through the flames to safety, Baker said.

Fire Department paramedics worked with EMSA crews to revive the woman, who was then taken to St. Francis.

A woman apparently drove the fourth fire victim to St. Francis Hospital, but she left before talking to police. The male victim had severe burns and was placed on respiratory support, Baker said.

Police released a picture of the woman that was taken by a hospital surveillance camera shortly after 4 a.m., Officer Leland Ashley said. They later said they had identified the woman but did not know her relationship to the burned man.

Tulsa Fire Department investigators and police arrived at the complex early to begin investigating. They determined that a meth lab in one of the second-story apartments caused the blaze, Baker said.

An eight-unit part of the apartment complex was severely damaged by fire and smoke. The top four units in the area were destroyed; the bottom four units had water damage after firefighters spent 40 minutes putting out the fire, Baker said.

But the way the apartments were constructed helped keep the flames from spreading further than they did, Baker said.

The apartments, constructed in the mid-1960s, have fire walls, he said. Fire walls are masonry structures that keep fires from spreading beyond them.

"The fire walls that separate the sections of the building kept it from burning the whole complex down," Baker said. "You literally have a burned side and an untouched side. The fire walls did exactly what they were designed to do."

The complex's management has set an initial damage estimate at $300,000.

Police say they have seen a sharp spike in the number of methamphetamine labs in the city, with 36 discovered in Tulsa this year, compared with 41 in all of 2008, Ashley said.

As Tuesday's fire progressed, the Fire Department sounded a second alarm because of the number of firefighters needed to rescue victims and assist with the evacuation. A total of 65 firefighters responded.

World staff writer Althea Peterson contributed to this story.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service