Nearly seven months after a deadly fire at Centennial Towers — a high-rise apartment complex owned by the Hall County Housing Authority — tenants are moving back onto the floor where the fire began.
“The remodeling is basically done,” said Hall County Housing Authority Director Rick Ruzicka. “We have some exterior brick work to finish, but the inside is finished.”
The ninth floor of the 11-story high-rise had been shut down since Nov. 7, when a tenant who had been drinking and was on oxygen “carelessly discarded a cigarette,” according to a fire marshal’s report. That tenant, James Curfman, continues to maintain that the fire started in Apartment 905 when he was cooking and his oxygen hose came in contact with the heating element on the electric stove.
Sarah Both, a 63-year-old woman who lived down the hall from Curfman, was killed in the fire. She pushed out her window air-conditioning unit as her apartment filled with smoke and then either fell or jumped to her death as firefighters and other tenants who had fled the building watched from below.
“This was a horrible tragedy and obviously we wish something like this would have never happened,” Ruzicka said.
The fire also caused $250,000 worth of damage to 12 apartments on the ninth floor and water damage on surrounding floors.
That damage forced 10 tenants from the ninth floor to be displaced from their homes until June 1, when the ninth floor was turned back to the housing authority after remodeling and the installation of fire sprinklers.
Another 121 families were displaced for three days from other floors in Centennial Towers because the entire building was without water and electricity immediately after the blaze. That caused all tenants, many of whom are on food assistance programs, to lose their perishable food.
Others lost family photos and memorabilia.
But Ruzicka said not everything about the fire was a loss.
“We, as an organization, were very pleasantly surprised how the community came together and really supported our residents during this period,” he said.
Counselors worked together to provide mental health help. The Red Cross provided blankets. The United Way and Goodwill provided vouchers for replacement clothes and housing items.
Area churches adopted families and gathered furniture, dishes and other household items. Community groups and even coffee klatches pulled together resources to replace lost items for tenants as well.
“The donations were to try to replace the things that people had,” Ruzicka said. “What I don’t think people realize is that a lot of our folks have nothing.”
Like Musa Adam, who came to the United States from Darfur, Sudan. He has been in Grand Island four years and lost his job at JBS after needing surgery.
Adam was in his apartment that afternoon when the fire alarms sounded. He smelled smoke, pulled on some clothes, and headed down a back stairwell. He and other displaced tenants were bused to area hotels for the night. Three days later, he moved into a seventh-floor apartment in Centennial Towers until his ninth-floor apartment could be renovated.
When he moved back to the ninth floor this past week, Adam hung four items right away — a clock, a calendar, an American flag and a poster of the alphabet from his class at Central Community College.
Through interpreter Michael Wal, Adam said that “everything was new” in the apartment.
It wasn’t just new carpeting, new paint and new fire sprinklers as part of the renovation work. The couch that maintenance workers helped him move up from the seventh floor was something he didn’t have until after the fire. The table, chairs and lamps were all new to him after the fire.
So were the double-bed frame and mattress.
All the donated items weren’t new to Adam just because they were donated. They were new because Adam never had such possessions before.
“This is what I sleep on that day of the fire,” Adam said, holding up a large black plastic trash bag. “I spread it out every night and sleep. Now I have a mattress.
“I’m not praying that the fire was good, because it is bad, but I’m telling the truth — all of this I get because it was donated,” Adam said. “I have more because of the fire.”
The fire brought exposure to some of Grand Island’s lowest-income residents. That resulted in generosity and caring that Ruzicka found so unbelievable.
“I do think that the exposure we got, about who we serve, has been good for the organization and for those that we serve,” he said. “More often, we’re forgotten about or not thought about at all.”
This past week, five of the original ninth-floor tenants moved back in. Some of those original tenants have decided not to come back because they became eligible for two-bedroom apartments and were already transferred there. Others preferred to stay in the temporary housing they were moved to, Ruzicka said.
Applications will be taken for the remaining seven open apartments.
Wal said Both will be remembered by many. She was a deacon in his church and he and others prayed over her body at CHI Health St. Francis.
“She was a very, very, very nice lady,” he said.
Curfman has bounced around between staying with friends and family and renting another apartment since the fire. But he was banned from all Hall County Housing Authority property and will never be allowed to rent there again, according to a letter sent to him by the housing authority.
He said he feels badly about what happened to Both, but feels the housing authority was negligent in not having enough interpreters to assist non-English-speaking tenants when they move in so those tenants know what to do when there is a fire.
Ruzicka said the housing authority has three Spanish-speaking interpreters on staff. They have a form for tenants to use to request interpreters.
The authority works very hard to always provide interpreters for anyone who wants one, he said, but that does get more challenging with the variety of languages and dialects in Sudan.
Each apartment does have an instruction sheet affixed to the back of the door that tells what to do during a fire, a medical emergency or a tornado. Ruzicka said it’s his hope that more can be done with fire drills or with Fire Department presentations on how to safely exit during a fire.
Before the fire, the housing authority had saved $400,000 to add fire sprinklers to Centennial Towers. Those sprinklers are now in place on floors 5 through 11, Ruzicka said. The first four floors will have to wait until fall as the fire sprinkler installation crews have left to work on sprinklers in Grand Island’s new school building projects over the summer when students are gone.
The housing authority is also moving toward a “no smoking” campus. Smoking has always been banned in public areas, but smoking had been allowed in individual apartments. Ruzicka said all new tenants now have leases that state smoking is not allowed anywhere. However, current residents are still on their old lease, which allows in-apartment smoking.
“We have about one-third of the units turn over every year,” he said. “So we think that within three to five years, this building will effectively be no smoking.”
Simply banning smoking won’t remove all fire hazards, though, Ruzicka said. Candles and cooking are hazards, too. Perhaps the more important factors are that the 1957 building is all concrete to keep fire from spreading, it has a state-of-art automatic alarm system, and it now has the fire sprinklers.