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Last updated: Mon. Dec. 24, 2012 - 12:24 pm EDT

Fire damages historical West Central house

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Flames tore through the roof and top floor of a historical home that was converted into a five-unit apartment in the West Central neighborhood on Sunday, destroying belongings and displacing residents two days before Christmas.

More than 30 firefighters battled the blaze at 1122 W. Wayne St., near College Street, said Stacey Fleming, fire department spokeswoman. She described the damage to the house, built in 1880, as extreme.

“This is a brick structure. It had a slate roof, and when you take that and you have a fire inside, the heat and the energy is very strong,” she said. “It’s not the typical fire that will vent out the roof. It’s actually being held in.”

The blaze was reported about 11:51 a.m., and fire crews arrived four minutes later, according to the department.

Firefighters determined the fire was in the knee walls of the third floor and had spread into the attic, Fleming said.

At one point, dangerous conditions forced fire crews to retreat from the house, but after gaining some control of the blaze, they went back inside, Fleming said. Firefighters remained at the scene until about 7:15 p.m.

The fire is still under investigation, but Nate Jackson, who lived on the top floor of the house, offered an account that suggested the cause was electrical.

Late Sunday morning, Jackson was vacuuming when a circuit blew – a normal event in his unit, he said. He went downstairs to flip the switch in the circuit-breaker panel, and when he returned to his unit, smoke was pouring from a cabinet under a sink.

Jackson said he moved items in the cabinet looking for flames to extinguish but found none.

“All I could see was a ton of smoke,” the 23-year-old said.

Breanna Gearhart, who was on the first floor visiting her uncle, said Jackson went door-to-door telling everyone to evacuate the building. “The house is on fire! Get out!” Gearhart heard Jackson yell.

Everyone escaped the fire safely, including Jackson who left the building without shoes.

“He was, like, in his bare feet, no socks or anything,” Gearhart said. “He didn’t even have a jacket on.”

Jackson, who lived with his brother and his brother’s wife, said the couple were headed to Detroit to see relatives when they learned their apartment had burned.

“That wasn’t a very pleasant phone call to get, I’m sure,” Jackson said.

Firefighters rescued one of their cats, but a second cat, a black one named Daisy, was missing, Jackson said.

Smoke was still rising from the house shortly after 3 p.m., and firefighters were salvaging belongings, including wall hangings, guitars and Christmas presents.

Some of Amber Hess’ possessions were among those saved.

“I make hula hoops, and I got all those, thank God,” said Hess, 25. “A couple of them are Christmas gifts.”

Hess, who lived on the second floor with a roommate, estimated that about nine people lived in the building. Fleming said three of the units had people in them at the time of the fire.

The American Red Cross came to the scene to help the residents. Several planned to stay with friends or family.

“This is just a … horrible time for the residents involved in this,” Fleming said, regarding the upcoming holiday.

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