ASSIGNMENT 13: Heroes Inside the Flames

Chippewa Falls, WI (WEAU) - An investigation left unsolved months after a fire destroys a downtown building in Chippewa Falls. We're uncovering new details in the case of 15 W. Spring Street, an historical fire that left two people trapped and another injured.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2011 one structure fire was reported every 65 seconds. Meanwhile one civilian fire injury was reported every 30 minutes. But, the scariest statistic is every 23 seconds a fire will start in the United States. Just to put into perspective, the time it took for this story to fully air, about 15 fires will ignite.

It was a glow rarely seen in downtown Chippewa Falls.

"I came from the east and could see the flames from quite a distance away already. It really took off really fast,” said Chippewa Falls Police Officer, Mark Johnson.

Officer Mark Johnson says he felt the urgency in the air as entered the back stairs of 15 W. Spring Street with his partner minutes before it was engulfed.

"We were on the top steps and we were yelling for people to come out,” said Johnson.

With smoke quickly suffocating the building, Johnson crawled down a hallway to rescue one woman.

"I saw she didn't have any shoes on and when we busted that door on the bottom, there was a lot of glass for the last 7 -8 steps, so I put her on my shoulder and carried her down,” said Johnson.

9-1-1 Operator: "City Dispatch, units responding officers are advising there are subjects trapped in apartment 1 requesting ladder." Caller: "It's so bad in here."

"The incident commander then ordered me to grab a ladder,” said Lt. Lee Douglas of the Chippewa Falls Fire Department.

Lt. Lee Douglas says it was less than 24 hours before the fire started.. The department reviewed ladder rescues.

“I climbed up to the second story made face to face and voice contact with the victim as she was leaning out at me. I explained to her what was going to happen. She was able to step out onto the ladder and we were able to safely come down,” said Douglas.

Although humble, both men are heroes inside the flames.

"You’re humble and say it’s just doing your job, the rest of us yea they're as far as I'm concerned their both heroes, absolutely,” said Chief Tom Larson.

But how is the fire department using this tragic fire to its advantage?

“We think about it all the time. We always try to learn from stuff. Every fire we have we critique,” said Larson.

Larson says they’re informing the community through the 8th Annual citizen's fire academy. The fire department explains how to use equipment like their breathing apparatus, which firefighters changed every 15 minutes that night. The purpose is to promote fire safety for adults.

"Hopefully you guys become cheerleaders for the department that this is an important service. Budgets are extremely tight, there is only so much tax dollars going around and this is public safety,” said Larson.

David Raihle who owns the building next door to 15 W. Spring Street said it was a no brainer to sign up to see what it's like from a firefighter's perspective. He says 5 years before the fire he updated his building because of new codes.

"At first I was really frustrated because it adds about $25,000 to my renovation costs to put fire block ceilings in, double barrier wall,” said Raihle.

The chief says that wall saved the rest of the block from catching fire.

"The tenants had no time. Had there not been adequate smoke alarms, adequate protection my building would have been a total loss. As a result of that fire, I've already gone ahead and done voluntary upgrades even thought I don't have to,” said Raihle.

"But what do firefighters see when faced with a fire like the one on Spring Street? I snapped on a GO PRO camera and my Citizen's Fire Academy gear to see what they see," said Everett

With fog simulating smoke, it's a sight almost impossible to see and is a job requiring the use of hands and instincts.

"That's why we do a lot of pre fire plans. We do them repeatedly to give ourselves working knowledge of what each building looks like from the outside and the inside,” said Douglas.

With training on the mind, the biggest question is where is this investigation?

"We know it started in apartment number 4, it was not occupied at the time that fire started,” said Brian Micolichek, Detective Sergeant, Chippewa Falls Police Department.

But why did a fire start in apartment 4 with no one living there? The Detective Sergeant says the fire was suspicious from the beginning but can be hard to prove if it's arson.

"We've got some people that are people of interest, but we have not been able to establish to take that further at this time,” said Micolichek.

The Chippewa County Coroner says ted jones lived next to apartment four and went to the hospital with severe burns, but died shortly after.

"The original death certificate had on that the person hemorrhaged, a procedure that was done to try and determine if there was problems with his airways,” said Ron Patten, Chippewa County Coroner.

In the last 30 days, the coroner added burns to Jones' death certificate in addition to hemorrhaging and lung problems. Patten says an autopsy wasn't done and doesn't think there will be one. He believes the complications of his death wouldn't have happened if he wasn't in the fire.

"If the case was ever determined that it was an arson case and prove who did, it would be considered a homicide,” said Patten.

"It's been 9 months since the fire on Spring Street and when driving into Chippewa Falls the first thing you notice is a gaping hole of where the building once stood. All that's left behind is some pieces of brick, an open investigation and the memories of heroes inside the flames," said Everett.

If you have any information that leads to a conviction on how this fire started, there is a $5,000 reward. You can call the WI Arson Hotline at 1-800-362-3005.


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