KALKASKA — Anna Finkbeiner put her 3-year-old niece down for the night and readied to go to bed herself — she’s convinced the sound of shattering glass saved her life.
The 29-year-old usually stays up late playing video games, but she didn’t feel well Friday night. The clock read 11:39 p.m. Time for bed.
“Then I hear a bunch of commotion and glass breaking,” Finkbeiner said.
It was Trout Festival weekend. She assumed some revelers were partying a little too hard outside the Kalkaska Woods apartment complex. But she poked her head outside and saw about five feet of flames roaring below the second story apartment.
The smoke assaulted her senses.
“It smacked you in the face when you looked out the door,” Finkbeiner said.
Her sister, Ashley Taylor, worked at Shoreline Fruit, unaware a fire grew at her home. Her dad called at about 12:30 a.m. with the news. She sped home and found ambulances, fire trucks and a blocked parking lot.
“(There was) lots of flame, lots of smoke, lots of firefighters,” she said. “They had a lot of engines out there.”
Engines from Kalkaska Township, Alden, Fife Lake, Clearwater Township, Traverse City and Coldsprings Excelsior fire departments, among others, rushed to the fire at the 506 N. Cedar St. building after nearly 10 people called 911.
The fire burned through an entry way on the east side of the apartment building and reached up to the roof. Firefighters knocked most of the flames down quickly, but insulation and other highly flammable materials kept feeding the flames, said Kalkaska Township Fire Chief Derek Hogerheide.
Hogerheide said he brought in a Michigan State Police fire investigator Tuesday and concluded his probe without determining a cause. Red flags flew when he concluded the fire started on the outside of the building, toward the east entrance.
Hogerheide couldn’t say whether he suspects someone set the blaze — investigators continue to speak with tenants and witnesses.
“It doesn’t mean it’s intentional,” Hogerheide said. “(The cause is) just unknown right now.”
Firefighters from six area departments and a truck from the Traverse City Fire Department all responded and finally cleared the scene nearly six hours later.
One firefighter was injured after trying to force a locked apartment door open, Hogerheide said.
“Those firemen, they did a wonderful job,” he said. “They worked their tails off.”
Caution tape blocked off the building’s parking lot Tuesday afternoon. A chain link fence prevented access to the building, seen with a charred front entrance and a patchwork of tarps covering the roof.
Orange block letters read “No Trespassing” hung on the doors to discourage anyone from visiting the remnants. The second apartment building sat undisturbed 100 feet away.
Elizabeth Sheppard’s son woke her up that night, telling her the home she’s lived in since 2007 was burning down. They bolted, armed only with a tablet and a cellphone.
“I grabbed him and we got out as fast as we could,” she said. “We called 911 and it was on fire before anyone could stop it.
“It was out of control.”
American Red Cross of Northern Michigan workers deployed to help 47 people evacuated from 16 apartments, said Disaster Program Manager Meghan Powers. Teams arrived on scene at about 2 a.m. and continue helping families with assistance for hotel rooms and providing blankets and comfort kits filled with toothbrushes, shampoo and other toiletries.
Red Cross workers now are helping those families plan their next step, including looking at housing options, working out insurance issues and helping get them the items and resources they need, Powers said.
Seven of the displaced families — like Finkbeiner and Taylor — moved to rooms at the All Seasons Hotel and Resort in Kalkaska at reduced rates. General Manager Tim Ellis said community members and business owners are footing the bill for those families and literally filling hotel rooms with clothing, food and other essentials.
“I think this is just another example of the community efforts of Kalkaska,” he said. “The moment the tragedy was made public, we didn’t even have to do anything, people just started coming to us.”
The support certainly will help the families that lost so much. All Taylor has left is her steel-toe work boots and the clothes on her back.
She came back to take in what’s left of her home. She heard her neighbors will be allowed back soon to recover what they can. It’s “structurally unsafe” for her to return to her second-story apartment, but not much would have been salvageable anyway — about two feet of wet insulation blankets her apartment floor, she said.
Residents who lived on the lower level may be able to return. Their upstairs neighbors, like Taylor, likely will need to find a new home.
Taylor’s search for affordable housing is on, but finding anything will be a challenge in the Kalkaska area, Taylor said.
“We’re just looking for people,” she said. “It’s about who you know.”
Reporter Brooke Kansier and Photographer Mike Krebs contributed to this report.
Help from local church
The Kalkaska Church of Christ hopes to help the families who find themselves homeless after a fire ripped through their apartment complex.
Any families displaced by the blaze at the Kalkaska Woods apartment complex can come to the church Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. to pick up toiletries, clothing and other needed items.
Senior Minister Andy Bratton said some families in the church know those affected by the fire and wanted to help.
“When a disaster like that hit, we just thought, ‘What can we do to help,”’ he said. “We just wanted to meet some immediate needs.”
The church is located at 1725 W. Kalkaska Road.