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Families burned out in largest-ever Overland Park fire begin struggle to recover

kbergen@kcstar.com

Overland Park woman returns to her burnt-out house near CityPlace development

Pauletta Ashby and her son Damian Ashby returned to their Overland Park home Tuesday afternoon near the CityPlace development, only to find everything was burnt and gone. Pauletta recounted how she survived the eight-alarm fire while salvaging few
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Pauletta Ashby and her son Damian Ashby returned to their Overland Park home Tuesday afternoon near the CityPlace development, only to find everything was burnt and gone. Pauletta recounted how she survived the eight-alarm fire while salvaging few

They had watched their homes burn, or raced home to find their cul-de-sacs blocked by police, the narrow streets of their neighborhood clogged by spectators.

They had spent the night with relatives or at hotels, tried to get in touch with insurance agents or worried about insurance they didn’t have.

And on Tuesday morning, more than a dozen families affected by an eight-alarm apartment complex fire gathered — exhausted and scared — at the Christ Lutheran Church for a briefing with officials who assured the group they would determine the cause of the blaze that had destroyed a CityPlace apartment tower under construction and ultimately damaged more than two dozen homes.

Officials announced later Tuesday that the fire was caused by a welder who had accidentally ignited wooden materials at the construction site.

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The properties of the families gathered at the church were part of what Overland Park Fire Chief Bryan Dehner would later call the “collateral damage” of the largest fire in Overland Park history. Burning debris had ignited roofs almost a mile away from the apartment complex, and some houses succumbed to fire as firefighters focused on preventing the blaze from spreading past 119th Street.

“It is very difficult to tell homeowners that had just lost their house ... that we were making our line in the sand at 119th Street and the homes between 119th Street and (CityPlace) may be casualties,” Dehner said Tuesday evening as he acknowledged the frustrations of displaced residents.

Standing outside her home off 115th Terrace, Jane Mack said there was little else she could do Monday but watch her home burn from a spot several yards away.

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Mack had raced to her house to find her roof ablaze. A firefighter who accompanied her into her home yelled at her to hurry, she said.

She threw as much as she could into a half-packed suitcase — she was supposed to go on a trip to New Orleans on Tuesday — while her daughter Katie grabbed Charlie, the family kitten. Her family has yet to find Ginger, another pet cat.

Outside, two neighbors had tried to put out the back of her house with a garden hose. Mack had recently moved into the home and spent $20,000 gutting the downstairs and adding new granite countertops. It was finally a place she could call her own after getting divorced four years ago, she said.

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But Tuesday morning, Mack and her daughters were uncertain of their immediate future and still not able to return to their home because the residential area was considered an active crime scene that needed to be inspected by investigators.

While most people would be able to access their homes again Tuesday, several were expected to be displaced for an extended time.

“For some of you, this process is just starting,” Dehner told the group. “It may take months for you to get back in your home.”

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Pauletta Ashby was one of those who was able to re-enter her home early Tuesday. At first, she was encouraged.

The dining room seemed salvageable. So did the kitchen.

But when she turned the corner to see the living room, she had to laugh despite herself. She saw nothing but a mass of blackened rubble: total destruction. The roof? Gone.

“Oh my gosh,” she said.

Ashby had known the house was damaged, but seeing it was something else. She had been home when the fire started and smelled smoke, but she thought it came from a neighbor’s house. After her son called to tell her the fires were spreading, she went outside and found a firefighter watering her house. The roof was blazing. The fire burned for an hour and dropped the second floor into her living room.

A massive eight-alarm fire consumed an apartment building under construction at a multimillion-dollar development in Overland Park on March 20. The blaze sparked fires at many homes in the nearby. The video includes footage from Overland Park Fire

On Tuesday, Ashby returned to her living room, burned to a crisp. The sofa, the stereo, the DVD player, even the piano where she taught her daughter, now 23, to play more than 15 years ago.

Singed by the flames but largely intact were a small collection of oil paintings, depicting a woman and child at a piano, which Ashby hung on the wall where she and her daughter played.

“It’s going to take several weeks to clean this up,” Ashby said. “Yeah. It’s a mess.”

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Other signs of the fire also marked the neighborhood. At one cul-de-sac after another, fire trucks sat parked outside the ruins of houses burned inside and out. Investigators strung yellow tape around houses with missing roofs and blackened exteriors. Neighbors found chunks of charred material in their gardens.

Residents and first responders gathered at the Christ Lutheran Church, which transformed into a disaster relief center for the Red Cross, first responders and affected residents Monday evening, senior pastor Jeffrey Kunze said.

“A lot of families were coming here in shock,” Kunze said of Monday night. “Our biggest concern is to give the city what it needs as a command center and to support all of our neighbors.”

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While most families had left to stay with family members or in hotels by 11 p.m., throughout the night the church was a stop for first responders to grab food, go to the bathroom or regroup. On Tuesday, the church continued to be a place for fire investigators to interview families and a meeting spot where stories from the day before circulated.

One man climbed to his roof with a garden hose and fell off his ladder, fortunately escaping injury. Another neighbor helped an older man, who used a walker, to get out of his house.

Former Olathe Fire Battalion Chief Jim Hibbard, now a facilities manager at the church, said he saw a burning roof nearby and started sprinting. He hopped a back fence, hoping to find a hose and then entered the house to warn residents.

The home was unoccupied, and Hibbard joined neighbors trying to find a nozzle for a hose until firefighters arrived.

Overland Park's March 20 fire destroyed one building under construction at College Blvd. and Nieman Road and damaged more than 20 nearby homes. Fire Chief Bryan Dehner said investigators are now working to determine what caused the blaze. This vid

Fire officials announced Tuesday that at least 25 homes had been damaged or destroyed by the fire. John Groebe, president of the College Park Estates Homeowners Association, also took stock of the damage in his area, directing displaced residents and accessing damage.

While many residents found themselves left to their own devices to battle the house fires, Groebe said he thought the fire crews “did a good job” as they struggled to contain the spreading fires.

All the the affected residents Groebe had spoken with owned their homes and had insurance. But the event was still devastating.

“You can’t really imagine the sense of loss for your neighbor who’s just lost everything,” Groebe said. “There’s just no words for it.”

On Monday when the fire broke out, Groebe ran first to the nearby home of an older woman who lived alone. He pounded on the door and alerted her to the fire, then he and a neighbor grabbed garden hoses to try to keep the flames from her house.

It was no use. The house burned.

“It’s a very hopeless feeling,” Groebe said, “when you’re trying to be of assistance and there’s nothing you can do.”

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