Authorities have not positively identified the man who died, but family members and friends identified him as Kevin Abeyta, a 24-year-old Durango native and restaurateur. His body was found in a heavily damaged part of the housing complex, and was removed after it was safe for firefighters to go into the area, said Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District.
Three people – one adult and two children – were initially taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center. From there, two were flown to Denver-area hospitals, suggesting their injuries are serious or critical, Doughty said. One of the children remained at Mercy for observation, he said.
The names of those injured were not released.
Firefighters responded to the call at 1:48 a.m. in the 2100 block of West Third Avenue. The fire broke out in a center unit, sandwiched by other apartments. Flames quickly spread to adjoining units, creating inferno-like conditions for firefighters. They went into a defensive mode, meaning they blasted the blaze from the outside with water and foam, Doughty said.
Firefighters performed a quick search of units, which left three people unaccounted for as of 4:30 a.m. Two of the missing individuals were located, giving firefighters a good idea of who died in the blaze.
Some residents were awakened by a man yelling in an effort to warn others.
A towering plume of smoke billowed into the night sky as neighbors gathered to watch around 2:15 a.m. Thirty minutes later, firefighters appeared to have gained control of what was described as a “terrifying situation.”
Doughty said the cause of the fire is unknown, but it appears it started in an occupied unit.
Firefighters had no reason to suspect foul play as of Wednesday afternoon, but Doughty said the investigation was in its early stages.
“We don’t have anything specifically pointing toward foul play or an accelerant (being used), but we also don’t have any evidence clearing that from being the case,” he said. “This investigation is truly in its infancy, and we don’t have enough information to say one way or another with any degree of certainty.”
One thing firefighters will look for is how the fire spread so fast. The housing complex had firewalls separating units, which “did a great job of limiting fire travel on the inside of the building,” Doughty said. But it’s possible exterior finishes and the age of the building played a role in the fire’s rapid spread.
The apartments were built prior to modern sprinkler codes, Doughty said. Had a sprinkler system been installed, it’s likely the fire would have been held at bay long enough for firefighters to put it out, he said.
At least some of the apartments were equipped with smoke detectors he said.
“I can’t absolutely verify there were smoke detectors present in all of the apartments,” he said. “But we know there were smoke detectors present in some, because we could hear them going off when we were fighting the fire.”
“The guys did a phenomenal job of getting a very quick knockdown,” Doughty said about 4:30 a.m.
He commended the Durango Police Department and other first-responders for helping evacuate residents. “Those are all elements of really successful operation that happened in this case,” Doughty said.
Most residents found shelter by 3:35 a.m., either with neighbors or at Needham Elementary, where Red Cross offered services. Some residents needed blankets for warmth after standing outside for several hours, stricken with panic.
“Obviously, people who live here are going to be displaced for the long-term,” Doughty said.
Firefighters didn’t have any information about pets that may have escaped or succumbed to the fire.
“We’ve had contact with several of the residents who have been displaced, and mostly all of them are just concerned about other victims of the fire and making sure the people they know got out,” Doughty said.
Residents raced to get cars out of driveways; one car was completely torched.
Donna Kramer, a 14-year resident of Tercero Townhouse, said she was awakened by someone yelling “help, help, fire, fire!” She got out of her unit and waited with neighbors in a car to stay warm.
“We’re grateful for a loud neighbor,” she said. “We’re glad it didn’t spread down the neighborhood.”
Herald Sports Editor John Livingston contributed to this story.