1 killed in fire at historic Galveston apartment building

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by KHOU.com staff

khou.com

Posted on October 11, 2013 at 6:16 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 11 at 6:09 PM

Galveston apartment fire

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GALVESTON, Texas—One person died following a fire at an apartment building near The Historic Strand District early Friday, Galveston firefighters said.

According to the Galveston Fire Department, the fire was reported at the Justine Apartments in the 500 block of 21st Street around 5 a.m.

Many of the residents escaped on their own using a front stairwell, but not everyone made it out safely.

“We were able to clear the stairwell, make our way up to the third floor, get a line on the fire pretty quickly,” Galveston Fire Chief Mike Wisko said. “It was contained to one apartment. We did find an occupant in that apartment. He was removed, transported to the hospital. Unfortunately, he was pronounced dead at the hospital on arrival.”

Neighbors identified the victim as Ron Merkle. They fear that the man in failing health, a smoker with an oxygen tank in his room, might have fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand.

“I didn’t know what else to do  but just to try to get in there and get him and it was just too thick,” said neighbor Shane Lassiter of the smoke billowing from his neighbor’s apartment on the third floor. Lassiter was the first to notice the 5 a.m. fire. He kicked down his neighbor’s door hoping he would be able to save him, but had to retreat from the smoke and flames.

“It breaks my heart, it really does,” said friend and neighbor Cris Anne Moore. “He’s been suffering, and I’m praying that he went in his sleep. Maybe he didn’t wake up for it.”

The Galveston County Daily News reported four other people were rescued from the building.

The Galveston Fire Marshal was called to the scene to investigate, but there was no official word as to what may have caused the fire.

According to the National Register of Historic Places, the structure was built as the Illies Building in 1929.

Wisko said it has been used as an apartment building since the early 1960s, and the fire code that applied at that time is the fire code currently in place.

There was water and smoke damage throughout the historic building that will keep residents displaced until it is cleaned up. The Red Cross has provided hotel vouchers to the residents of the 20 units in the apartment building.

Residents say they have been told it take until at least Monday to repair the smoke and water damage before they can be allowed back into their apartments.

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