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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City firefighters stand down Thursday morning after a long night and morning at an apartment complex at 400 North and Redwood Road where a fire broke out early Thursday morning. About 140 renters removed clothes and valuables Thursday morning from their smoke-damaged apartment building.
Fire at Salt Lake apartment complex leaves 140 homeless

Damage » A firefighter calls it one of the largest displacements of people he’s ever seen.

First Published Mar 29 2012 10:16 am • Last Updated Mar 30 2012 07:28 am

Raquel Salceda woke to the sound of screaming at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.

She opened her apartment door and saw a wall of smoke.

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Salceda and her husband gathered up their two children, ages 3 and 4, ran to their third-floor balcony, and waited for rescue from a fireman’s ladder.

"It was scary," said the 25-year-old woman, who is pregnant with their third child.

Salceda is one of about 144 people driven from the North Aspen apartment complex, 1722 W. 400 North, by a blaze that started in a first-floor apartment kitchen, leaving the complex empty and raising concerns about looting.

No one was hurt and firefighters were able to contain the flames to one unit, but smoke damaged up to 14 apartments, said Clair Baldwin, a battalion chief with the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

Fire also damaged pipes and electrical lines, forcing a total utility shut-off at the 42-unit complex and rendering the whole building unlivable.

"It’s one of the largest displacements we’ve ever had," Baldwin said. "We rescued 30 people from balconies by ladder. It was pretty intense for about 15 minutes."

A discarded cigarette or other smoking material started the fire, according to investigators. Firefighters didn’t initially get an answer when they knocked at the apartment where the fire started, and had to kick in the door to get the resident out.

The blaze caused about $150,000 worth of damage, firefighters said.

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After extinguishing the blaze, crews left the building with the usual understanding that the landlord would provide security for the abandoned apartments, Baldwin said.

But when authorities heard reports of men running out of the building after the residents left for a Red Cross shelter at 1148 W. 500 North, firefighters and police returned to the scene.

It appears management wasn’t "quite ready to be inundated the way they were," Baldwin said.No one reported anything missing to police Thursday, a department spokeswoman said.

Firefighters and police began letting people back into their homes shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, escorting them to their apartments and giving each a few minutes each to gather necessities.

With many still wearing nightgowns and pajama pants, people walked away from the complex with laundry baskets, plastic bags and storage bins piled high with blankets, clothes and shoes.

"It’s all ashes in there," said Salceda’s husband, 27-year-old Oliver Martinez. With the doors off all the apartments, the couple plan to stay at his mother’s house, but they remain concerned about security.

While some residents could be allowed back Thursday, others may be out for "a number of days," said Salt Lake City fire spokesman Scott Freitag.

The Red Cross will provide emergency shelter for about half the residents until they can get back into their homes.

Patrick Fisk with ServiceMaster Clean, a company that does disaster cleanup, said each fire differs but insurance and payments at apartments can take months to sort out.

"It’s definitely not a simple process," Fisk said.

Rebecca Gardner, 19, and Lusbin Cruz, 26, were wrapped in blankets as they stood on the lawn outside the complex Thursday morning, waiting to be let back into their apartment.

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