SIERRA VISTA — The popping noises outside sounded like gunshots to Victor Vazquez. But when the father of three looked out his window, he saw flames shooting out of his neighbor’s apartment in the next building.
“I woke up my wife and told her, ‘Get the baby and wake up the kids, we have to go,’” Vazquez told the Herald/Review Tuesday outside his residence at the Mountain View Apartments.
An inferno raced through building seven of the apartment complex Sunday at about 2:30 a.m., Sierra Vista Fire officials said. An unattended prayer candle left in a room of one of the units on the first floor was the cause behind the massive blaze that destroyed the structure, prompting the roof to collapse, said Sierra Vista Fire Marshall Paul Cimino.
Three of the eight apartments in the building were damaged by the fire and the remaining five were destroyed by the downed roof, Cimino said. Five apartments in a neighboring building were affected by smoke and those tenants also had to evacuate, said a spokesman for the American Red Cross Southern Arizona Chapter in Tucson.
All in all, 42 people were affected by the early-morning inferno, officials said.
The resident of the apartment where the fire originated was alerted by a smoke alarm, Cimino said.
“When she woke up, the other room was in flames,” Cimino said. The acceleration was to the point where several fire departments were dispatched automatically. Whetstone, Fry Fire District, Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista were involved.
“The fire accelerated and got up into the attic of the building very quickly,” Cimino added.
He said the fire also became “defensive,” which means firefighters had to battle it from the outside rather than attempt entry into the structure.
“I couldn’t even give you an estimate [dollarwise] of the destruction,” said Cimino, who is still investigating the incident.
“This was a huge event in terms of destruction an the number of people who were displaced,” he added.
American Red Cross Southern Arizona Chapter spokesman Colin Williams said the 42 people impacted by the blaze represent 15 new cases for the organization.
The Red Cross relocated all the victims of both the fire and those who were affected by smoke, including Vazquez, his wife Andrea and their three children.
Aside from the Red Cross, the tragedy has fueled an outpouring of aid from the community, including help from an 8-year-old Girl Scout from Hereford who is planning to hold a fundraiser on Friday and Saturday to collect goods and money for the victims.
Chanelle Vonkohler will be holding her fundraiser in front of the Dollar General, 4053 S. State Road 92, on Friday and Saturday between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., said her mother Michelle Vonkohler. The youngster learned about the blaze on Monday when her mother showed her pictures of the tragedy, Vonkohler said.
“She wants to be a firefighter when she grows up and they always show her the equipment at the fire department,” Vonkohler said. “She saw what happened in the fire and she was very upset that people had lost everything. She was worried that they were starving.”
Chanelle will have a table set up at the Dollar General for anyone who wants to donate items or cash. Vonkohler said the potential future firefighter has already gathered several stuffed animals of her own that she no longer wants and put them in a large bag to give to any child who lost their toys in the fire.
Donations also are flooding the offices of Sierra Vista Gives on Fry Boulevard, said director Renee McKeogh.
“The donations started coming in the next day,” McKeogh said. When something happens, the community comes together.”
McKeogh said her organization has received furniture, clothing, toiletries and food for the fire victims.
But neighbors at the Mountain View Apartments also helped each other.
Sue Brophy and her daughter Lillian Wuth ran out of their apartment when the fire erupted.
They watched as their neighbors in building seven bolted from their homes screaming and crying.
Wuth, the mother of an 8-month-old boy, said she was saddened that two of the victims are expectant mothers. Other families included children just a bit older than her own son Jeremiah.
Both Wuth and her mother offered the young parents baby clothes and formula.
Brophy is also watching the Vazquez apartment until they’e allowed to return at the end of the week. She is “plant sitting” for another neighbor who also had a smoke-filled unit.
“This has been a spiritual awakening for me,” Brophy said. “That could have been us. So many people here in the apartments have helped. This is our community in here and people want to help the victims.”