Recovering what’s left behind: Residents return to senior high-rise after fire

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Gisele Bontrager was rushed out of her home early Saturday morning. Her dog began barking when someone banged on the door.

“Somebody knock on our door and said ‘The building's on fire,  the building's on fire,’” recalled Bontrager while holding her dog in her arms. “I got her dressed. I got myself dressed. We got out to the stairway, 9th floor. It wasn’t easy.”

Residents at the Crosstown Parkway Apartments said a fire broke out at a senior living high-rise in Kalamazoo forcing them out of their homes.  On Monday, they returned to the apartments for the first time since the fire, grabbing what they can until things are fixed.

"I'm okay," said Bontrager who's staying at a motel. "My friends came and pick me up. I'm going to go in their and try to get some more of my things."

One person was killed and over 160 residents were displaced by the fire, which was reported early Saturday morning.  Residents said they woke up to large flames and heavy smoke between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.

"Just one unit on the 7th floor caught fire," said Scott Beltz, CEO of Medallion Management who own the property. "We don’t know the cause at this point. It's still being investigated."

Residents said it was no easy task to collect their belongings.  When they walked through  the doors they were reminded of what happened. Since then, some have been staying with relatives and others at lodging provided by the American Red Cross.

"We opened a shelter at the YMCA, just a couple blocks up the road," said Tiana Gee, Red Cross executive director of Southwest Michigan. "We have been providing shelter, food and financial assistance for these clients."

Gee said 169 of the 177 units at the high-rise were evacuated, most of them being single-resident apartments. She and the Red Cross volunteers have been doing case work with the clients everyday making sure their needs are met.

"They’re thankful that they were able to escape the fire unharmed," said Gee about the residents at the YMCA. "I was there on Saturday and as we were giving them the meals, they’re just saying ‘Thank you, God bless you. Thank you so much.’"

Bontrager said she and a neighbor went to a McDonald's that morning after the fire.  As scary as it all was, a few strangers there turned it all around for her.

"A worker said 'We're going to buy you a pair of shoes," said Bontranger. "She [my friend] says 'No no no no that's not necessary.'  Well, they went out and bought us two pairs of huge, heavy socks.  And I thought that was really great of them."

Bontrager said she didn't remember their names. But as soon as she grabs a few thing from her apartment and sets her internet  back up again, she going to thank them.

"I'm old. I need my mouse and my mouse is in there," she said laughing.

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