SAN ANTONIO – A 32-unit apartment complex near San Antonio burned from Thursday night to Friday morning as fire hydrants dried up after a winter storm that disrupted water supplies to millions of Texans.
Instead, firefighters were forced to rely on water from a nearby stream, which the trunks of tankers delivered via narrow, icy roads. These trucks were filling a containment pool in the apartment complex, but it could only provide water for a few minutes at a time.
“When we opened the fire hydrant, there was only air,” said Chief Jerry Bialick of the Bexar-Bulverde Volunteer Fire Department.
For hours, 125 firefighters from 16 departments fought the flames that threatened two neighboring buildings. On Thursday, residents stood in the cold and watched their homes burn down. Some tenants returned to inspect the smoking rubble on Friday.
About 130 people lost their homes.
“The firefighters were attacking the fire as best they could, but they were running out of water,” said Steve Henshaw, 48, who lived in the building with his wife and said they hadn’t had any water since Monday.
Mike Brinkmann, vice president of distribution and collections for the San Antonio Water System, said a prolonged power outage, combined with freezing temperatures, meant the utility was unable to pump water to a reservoir storage that feeds the apartment complex.
In normal power outages, which can linger for a day or two, there is enough water in the tank to last until power returns, but this week’s unusually long outage has drained the tank. Mr Brinkmann also said that the water left in the apartment’s sprinkler system was likely frozen due to insufficient pipe insulation.
Residents said they smelled something burnt Thursday afternoon. When firefighters arrived, a witness said he discovered that the heating element inside a water heater was operating without water in the system.
About two hours later, the apartment management company sent a text message asking residents to turn off the circuit breakers on their water heaters. Shortly after sending the email, firefighters discovered smoke rising between a tub and a wall.
Chief Bialick said the cause of the blaze remained unknown, but the blaze quickly spread.
The inability to get water from the fire hydrants “was literally like walking into a boxing ring with a hand and a half tied behind your back,” said Ken Jarvis, a public information officer for the service. fire.
Mr Henshaw and his wife, Joann Henshaw, escaped with their laptops. But Ms Henshaw, with tears in her eyes, said she left her wedding ring on the counter. Mr Henshaw, whose 73-year-old mother lived in another apartment in the building, said he lost valuable items from his time in the Air Force.
“Texas was not prepared for the winter storm,” said Ms. Henshaw, 49. “It froze our pipes. This is what ultimately led to the fire. It’s truly sad.”