Bellevue apartment fire deemed accidental; community is collecting donations for displaced families

Bellevue apartment fire deemed accidental; community is collecting donations for displaced families
The Fontenelle Hills apartments, located at 200 Martin Drive in Bellevue, on Wednesday after a Christmas morning fire. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Bellevue-area residents are channeling their Christmas spirit to help neighbors who lost their homes in an apartment fire Christmas morning.

The American Red Cross is helping families from 10 Fontenelle Hills apartments at 1114 Tanglewood Court that were left uninhabitable find temporary housing, and a local restaurant is gathering donations to assist them.

B&B Grill and Arcade, which is about a mile south of the apartment complex, opened two hours early Wednesday to collect donations for families in need. People already have donated clothing, blankets, jackets, comforters, baby supplies, toiletries and a vacuum, among other things.

Owner Diane Bruce said she is connecting people with residents if they want to donate large items such as beds. She said she plans to collect donations at least through the end of the week.

“The community always gets together in Bellevue when tragedy happens,” Bruce said. “We’re right down the street from the apartment, so I assume some of the tenants are our customers.”

The complex, east of Bellevue Boulevard, has had about a half-dozen fires since 1983, including one in 2015 that killed 39-year-old Juan Robles. Bellevue Battalion Chief Kurt Strachota said Fontenelle Hills doesn’t stand out as having an overabundance of fires versus other complexes.

The apartment campus consists of 17 buildings, almost all of which were built in 1974 at three stories tall. According to Strachota, Fontenelle Hills apartments have fireplaces but no sprinklers or fire alarms, except in buildings that have been remodeled or rebuilt after previous fires.

Mike Christensen, Bellevue’s chief building inspector, said the city can’t force the facility to install sprinklers or fire alarms unless certain conditions are met.

“The building code addresses existing buildings, and it’s pretty protective of (them),” he said. “So unless they’re damaged or renovated at least 50 percent, they’re grandfathered in.”

A person at the apartment complex leasing office declined to comment Wednesday. The complex’s owner, Minnesota-based MFR Partners XVI, could not be reached for comment.

Residents Aly and John Lehman grabbed their dog, a safe full of documents, guns and their family’s Christmas presents on their way out. They fled down the hill to their car, then drove away to a gas station when they realized they had 200 rounds of ammunition in the closet, so they returned and warned firefighters about the danger.

Firefighters asked if the two were married. When they said yes, Strachota went into the apartment and retrieved Aly’s wedding dress and their wedding plaque. It was a wonderful thing to save, but there was so much more they lost.

“My baby pictures and John’s baby pictures, those are all gone,” she said. “We started a box of letters we wrote to our kids we were going to give them when we died. That’s all gone.”

The Lehmans were allowed back on Wednesday to search through the wreckage.

“The only thing I was able to salvage was a picture of me and my mom,” Aly said. “The ceiling in the living room and dining room is on the floor. I went in and you could see the sky.”

The Lehmans are staying with John’s family while they sort things out. They have renter’s insurance. The American Red Cross is helping them with living expenses, and the folks at the restaurant have a list of their biggest needs.

“There are a lot of people that I don’t even talk to on a regular basis saying ‘I have clothes for you,’ ” she said, “Even my wedding cake decorator found me and wanted to help out.”

Firefighters from the Bellevue and Omaha Fire Departments battled the blaze, using an Omaha Fire Department aerial ladder to rescue a man on a third-floor balcony.

The fire began around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday on a third-story balcony at one of the buildings in the complex. Flames spread to other floors and to the roof, leaving 10 apartments uninhabitable.

A fire marshal has deemed the fire an accident, and Strachota said he did not yet know the cause.

One cat died in the fire, but no residents or firefighters were seriously hurt. Two residents reported smoke inhalation but did not seek medical attention at the time.

Bruce, the owner of B&B Grill and Arcade, has a list of items that tenants need in their temporary or future housing.

Bruce said her husband died earlier this year in a fall at a construction site. The community supported her in her time of need, she said, and she hopes to do the same for the displaced apartment tenants.

“Bellevue just stepped up for us,” she said. “Even if we can’t raise a ton of money, we want to help raise spirits.”

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