Witnesses say responders were unprepared to fight Bethel apartment fire that killed 3 people
Michaela Mike moves into another apartment in the Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority apartment complex in Bethel. Her old one is cordoned off with crime scene tape. Next to it is the burnt wreckage of his neighbors’ apartments.
On August 12, a fire engulfed the apartment complex, killing three people and injuring six others. It completely destroyed two units and damaged others, including Mike’s.
Residents like Mike who witnessed the fire criticized the response from police, firefighters and other city workers.
“It could have been better. When I came out, they were right there,” she said.
People who witnessed the response wonder if the deaths could have been avoided. Six of those witnesses spoke to KYUK, giving consistent accounts of how the response unfolded. KYUK has chosen to protect the identity of one person who survived the fire and one minor who witnessed the fire.
Witnesses said firefighters arrived without enough water or a ladder to reach the second floor, where the fire victims were sleeping. Tenants largely said they were not evacuated from their apartments and said emergency responders stopped a resident from trying to rescue family members who died in the fire.
According to a city emergency dispatch log, a community services officer called fire to the city dispatch at 4:13 a.m. Two police cars and a fire truck arrived minutes later. But the interviews, photos, video and logbook all point to delays and difficulties getting water to the fire and trying to rescue those trapped inside.
The fire started in the entrance to the building and took 20 minutes to reach the second floor, trapping nine people in two units. During that 20-minute period, all but three jumped out of second-story windows to escape, according to eyewitnesses and court documents. The three who remained inside on the second floor died.
They were Sophie Engebreth, 68, and her adopted teenage granddaughters: Brianna Engebreth, 13, and Melissa Engebreth, 15.
Witnesses wonder if firefighters had enough water
Firefighters showed up with either very little water to fight the blaze or no water at all, said the six witnesses who spoke with KYUK.
Mike recalled seeing a fire hose with no water coming out of it. Another resident, Tanya Leopold, said she saw many first responders when she first evacuated her apartment, but they didn’t appear to be trying to put out the flames or evacuate people.
“There was a fire truck, and it had all its equipment to put out a fire, but there was no ladder on it. There were already at least three, four police cars there,” Leopold said. “So it was like every minute or so there was another police cruiser. The cops multiplied and they just stood there.
Bethel Police did not respond to multiple calls and emails from KYUK seeking comment.
Leopold said that shortly after the fire truck arrived, he ran out of water.
“They came very poorly prepared. They should have had their gear ready, their water ready, all the fire extinguishers, at least the axes. They could have done something for those ladies,” Leopold said.
Leopold and Mike’s testimonies are corroborated by photographic and video evidence obtained by KYUK and by interviews with city officials. According to photos and videos, about 20 minutes after the fire was first reported, no water had been deployed to fight it.
Bethel Public Works Director Bill Arnold oversees the dispatch of water trucks to fire scenes. He said he was first contacted around 5 a.m., more than 45 minutes after the fire started. He said the city’s first water truck arrived on the scene 15 minutes later at 5:15 a.m., more than an hour after the fire started.
The logbook shows the first fire truck on the scene reported being out of the water minutes later at 5:19 a.m., but it’s unclear if it was the fire truck itself or the newly arrived tanker. Then at 5:22 a.m., a fire truck hooked up to a nearby fire hydrant.
The Bethel Fire Department said it could not answer any questions from KYUK regarding its response to the fire, so it is unclear why it took an hour to connect to a fire hydrant. But Bethel City Manager Pete Williams suggested it could be because sometimes in the Bethel Heights subdivision, connecting to a fire hydrant shuts off water to other homes.
The tenants were trapped on the second floor
Witnesses said that all emergency response vehicles were parked in front of the building, but victims of the fire on the second floor would have been better reached from behind.
“They could have used these [fire engine] scales. They could have gone behind the building where Sophie and the girls were, but there was no fire truck there,” Mike said.
Several other witnesses corroborated his story. One of Sophie’s sons, Richard Engebreth, posted on Facebook that firefighters arrived for the first time without a ladder. Although a second fire truck arrived with a ladder later, he said firefighters did not use it in an attempt to help people escape. Engebreth also wrote that his three deceased family members were calling for help from the rear windows on the second floor.
Witnesses Leopold and Mike said a crowd had gathered and called on firefighters to intervene.
“Then there’s a whole bunch of other people, and there’s these girls. They were screaming, telling them to do their job to save them,” Mike said.
At one point, the women said police handcuffed Engebreth to prevent him from trying to enter the building to save his mother, who died.
“I know he was really screaming and crying for his mother. I don’t see why they handcuffed him. He was just crying and wanted his mother like anyone else,” Leopold said.
Dispatch notes show that at 4:48 a.m., about half an hour after the fire started, officers called the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center and asked if there were cells available for multiple people.
According to dispatch notes and tenant testimonies, when police arrived on the scene, they spent more time controlling the crowd and handcuffing people than evacuating residents.
Eventually, witnesses said water began to flow freely towards the fire and a ladder moved around the back of the building. But by then it was too late. Witnesses speculate that if firefighters had entered the building or used a ladder earlier, the lives of the victims might have been spared.
The City in difficulty with its workforce
The city is struggling with staffing issues.
A firefighter said KYUK in July that during the pandemic the fire department had lost 22 of its 25 volunteers. However, Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee also told KYUK that he has started recovering some in recent months.
Earlier this summer, the Bethel Public Works Department reported that the tanker drivers were severely understaffed and that they were “mentally and physically fatigued”.
Apartment complex criticized
Tenants also criticized the apartment complex. Residents told officers there were no sprinklers or alarms inside. Tenant Galen Frank told KYUK he only woke up to the smell of smoke.
AVCP RHA operates the building. Chairman and CEO Mark Charlie said he could not answer any questions from KYUK regarding sprinkler systems, alarm systems or anything else related to the fire. However, he told KYUK that the apartments were equipped with fire extinguishers.
Lawsuits could follow
Two weeks after the fire, the building is a grim sight. The two second-floor apartments that were total losses burned down and collapsed. The remaining walls and floor are charred black. Their windows have disappeared.
In one of these ruined apartments lived the three people who died, with a relative who escaped by jumping from the window. In the other lived five people who also escaped through the window.
The survivors of both apartments retained the services of attorneys. Attorney Myron Angstman said he represents the Engebreth family and they are exploring their legal options. Another lawyer, Jim Valcarce, did not respond to calls or emails from KYUK, but one of his clients, a survivor, told KYUK he plans to sue Bethel City, AVCP RHA and any other responding entity.