Witnesses say responders came unprepared to fight Bethel apartment fire that killed 3
Michaela Mike is moving into another apartment at the Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority (AVCP RHA) apartment complex in Bethel. Her old one is cordoned off with crime scene tape. Next to it is the burned wreckage of her neighbors’ apartments.
On Aug. 12, a fire tore through the apartment complex, killing three people and injuring six others. It destroyed two units completely and damaged more, Mike’s included.
Residents like Mike that witnessed the fire have criticized how police, firefighters, and other city workers responded.
“It could have been better. When I came out, they were just standing around,” she said.
People who witnessed the response question if the deaths could have been prevented. Six of these witnesses spoke to KYUK, giving consistent accounts of how the response played out. KYUK has chosen to protect the identity of a person who survived the fire and a minor who witnessed the fire.
The witnesses said that firefighters arrived without enough water or a ladder to reach the second floor, where the fire’s victims slept. Tenants largely said that they were not evacuated from their apartments, and they said that emergency responders restrained a resident from attempting to rescue his family members who died in the fire.
According to a city emergency dispatch log, a community service officer called in the fire to the city dispatch at 4:13 a.m. Two police cars and one fire truck arrived just a few minutes later. But interviews, photos, video and the dispatch log all point to delays and difficulties getting water onto the fire and attempting to rescue people trapped inside.
The fire began in the entryway of the building and took 20 minutes to reach the second floor, trapping nine people in two units. Within that 20 minute span, all but three of them jumped out second-story windows to escape, according to eyewitnesses and court documents. The three who remained inside on the second floor died.
They were Sophie Engebreth, age 68, and her adopted teenage granddaughters: Brianna Engebreth, age 13, and Melissa Engebreth, age 15.
Witnesses question if firefighters had enough water
The fire department showed up either with very little water to fight the fire or with no water at all, the six witnesses who spoke with KYUK said.
Mike recalled seeing a fire hose with no water coming out of it. Another resident, Tanya Leopold, said that she saw plenty of first responders when she first evacuated her apartment, but they didn’t seem to be trying to suppress the flames or evacuate people.
“There was a fire truck, and it had all its equipment to turn off a fire, but they didn't have a ladder on there. There was at least three, four cop cars there already,” Leopold said. “So it was like, every minute or so, there is another cop car. The cops multiplied, and they just stood there.”
Bethel Police did not respond to KYUK’s multiple calls and emails asking for comment.
Leopold said that that shortly after the fire engine arrived, it ran out of water.
“They came very unprepared. They should have had their gear ready, their water ready, any fire extinguishers, at least axes. They could have done something for those ladies,” Leopold said.
Leopold and Mike’s testimonies are corroborated by photo and video evidence obtained by KYUK and by interviews with city officials. According to photos and videos, about 20 minutes after the fire was first reported, no water had been deployed to fight it.
Bethel Public Works Director Bill Arnold oversees sending water trucks to fire scenes. He said that he was first contacted at about 5 a.m., more than 45 minutes after the fire started. He said that the first city water truck arrived on scene 15 minutes later at 5:15 a.m., more than an hour after the fire started.
The dispatch log shows that the first fire engine on the scene reported being out of water a few minutes after that, at 5:19 a.m., but it’s not clear if it’s referring to the fire engine itself or the newly arrived water truck. Then at 5:22 a.m., a fire truck hooked up to a nearby fire hydrant.
The Bethel Fire Department said that it could not respond to any of KYUK’s questions about its response to the fire, so it’s not clear why it took an hour to connect to a hydrant. But Bethel City Manager Pete Williams suggested that it could be because sometimes in the Bethel Heights Subdivision, connecting to a fire hydrant shuts off water to other houses.
Tenants were trapped on the second floor
Witnesses said that all emergency response vehicles were parked in front of the building, but the fire victims on the second floor would have been better reached from the back.
“They could have used those [fire engine] ladders. They could have gone behind the building where Sophie and the girls were, but there was no fire truck back there,” Mike said.
Several other witnesses corroborated her story. One of Sophie’s sons, Richard Engebreth, posted on Facebook that the fire department first arrived without a ladder. Though a second fire truck did arrive with a ladder later, he said that firefighters did not use it to try to help people escape. Engebreth also wrote that his three family members who died were calling for help from the second-story back windows.
Witnesses Leopold and Mike said that a crowd had gathered and were asking firefighters to step in.
“Then there's a whole bunch of other people, and there's these girls. They were yelling, telling them to do their job to save them,” Mike said.
At one point, the women said that police handcuffed Engebreth to keep him from trying to enter the building to save his mother, who died.
“I know he was really hollering and crying for his mom. I don't see why they handcuffed him. He was just crying and wanting his mom just like anybody else would,” Leopold said.
The dispatch notes show that at 4:48 a.m., about half an hour after the fire started, the officers called the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center and asked if they had cells available for several people.
According to dispatch notes and testimony from tenants, when police arrived on scene, they spent more time controlling the crowd and handcuffing people than they did evacuating residents.
Eventually, witnesses said that water began flowing freely to the fire, and a ladder moved to the back of the building. But by then, it was too late. The witnesses speculate that if firefighters had entered the building or used a ladder earlier, the victims’ lives may have been spared.
City struggling with staffing
The city has been struggling with staffing issues.
A firefighter told KYUK in July that during the pandemic the fire department had lost 22 of its 25 of its volunteers. However, Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee also told KYUK that he had started to regain some in recent months.
Earlier in the summer, the Bethel Public Works Department reported that it was critically understaffed for water truck drivers and that they were “mentally and physically tired.”
Apartment complex criticized
Tenants also criticized the apartment complex. Residents told officers there were no sprinklers or alarms inside. Tenant Galen Frank told KYUK that he only woke up because of the smell of smoke.
AVCP RHA operates the building. President and CEO Mark Charlie said that he could not answer any of KYUK’s questions about the sprinkler systems, the alarm systems, or anything else related to the fire. However, he did tell KYUK that the apartments have fire extinguishers.
Lawsuits may follow
Two weeks after the fire, the apartment building is a grim sight. The two second-story apartments that were total losses have burned and collapsed. The remaining walls and floor are charred black. Their windows are gone.
In one of those ruined apartments lived the three people who died, with a relative who escaped by jumping out the window. In the other, there lived five who also escaped through the window.
The survivors of both apartments have retained lawyers. Lawyer Myron Angstman said that he represents the Engebreth family, and that they are exploring their legal options. Another lawyer, Jim Valcarce, did not answer KYUK’s calls or emails, but one of his clients, a survivor, told KYUK that they plan to sue the City of Bethel, AVCP RHA, and any other responding entities.