Death toll rises to five in San Marcos apartment fire
Two more victims’ bodies were recovered from the rubble of an aging San Marcos apartment complex destroyed by a sweeping fire, bringing the death toll to five in a university town still reeling from the magnitude of the devastating loss.
Investigators are still trying to determine what sparked the lethal inferno, which erupted before dawn Friday, ripping through the Iconic Village Apartments at 222 Ramsay St. and ultimately spreading next door to two buildings at the Vintage Pads Apartments at 1000 N. LBJ Drive. Both apartment complexes are two blocks from the Texas State University campus.
All five victims were found in the ruins of the same building at Iconic Village Apartments. None of them had been officially identified as of Monday evening and their causes of death have not been released. Authorities said it could take more than a week to make positive identification.
But San Marcos city officials acknowledged five people have been missing since the fire: San Antonio resident Dru Estes, 20; Haley Frizzell, 19, of San Angelo; James Miranda, who hailed from Cove, Ark.; Belinda Moats, 21, of Big Wells; and David Ortiz, 21, of Pasadena.
“There’s not anything we can do other than wait, unfortunately, and pray for the best,” said Moats’ uncle, Ruben Nolasco, who was among the many loved ones and friends gathered at the site of the fire Monday.
At least six others were injured, including Zachary Sutterfield, who was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in critical condition.
Investigators with the San Marcos Fire Marshal’s Office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives closely examined the burned-out shells of the destroyed buildings Monday. Some officers walked through the site with police dogs, looking for victims and accelerants. Others rode in a bucket lowered from above by a crane so they could get an aerial view of the fire scene.
The fire began at the Iconic Village Apartments shortly before 4:30 a.m. Friday — a time when most people are asleep. One of the residents living there, Matthew Smith, said he woke up around 4:25 a.m. to the smell of smoke. He opened his front door to see the courtyard and portions of one building’s second floor engulfed in flames.
“It literally looked like I was staring into hell through that door,” said Smith, who is about to start his senior year at Texas State. “I immediately ran to my car and started hiding behind my car, and you could just see all the second-floor windows on fire. I was just in shock. I couldn’t say anything.”
The building where all five bodies were recovered wasn’t equipped with a sprinkler system, authorities said. The structure met the required safety standards in place at the time it was built, but local officials can’t require property managers to “retrofit” their buildings, San Marcos Fire Chief Les Stephens said.
San Marcos Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner didn’t know when the building was last inspected by fire officials. He said the building was constructed in 1970, but a report from ApartmentTrends.com, operated by Austin Investor Interests, shows the Iconic Village complex was built in 1975. It contains 108 apartment units.
Kistner confirmed the complex wasn’t outfitted with a fire suppression system, which can use a combination of dry chemicals and wet agents to stop the fire. He did not comment on whether smoke alarms or fire alarms were in place or if they were in working order.
Kayli Lord, an Iconic Village resident whose living space was not damaged by the fire, said that her apartment wasn’t outfitted with a smoke detector until Monday, despite her emailing a request for one in June.
Lord didn’t know if other apartment units there had working smoke detectors, but said she “did not hear one alarm go off” when she went outside during the fire.
Smith said the apartment where he stayed had a battery-powered smoke detector, but it did not go off during the blaze.
Three residents mentioned suspected acts of vandalism that occurred in the months leading up to the fire, with one of them reporting an incident to the authorities.
Both Iconic Village and the Vintage Pads complex next door — an older property built in 1963, which also sustained some damage from the fire — are owned by the same company, San Marcos Green Investors LLC, based in Chicago, according to the Hays County Appraisal District’s website. William “Bill” Bennett, who is listed in state documents as a manager for the company, confirmed that organization purchased both apartment properties in 2010.
Bennett otherwise declined to answer questions from the San Antonio Express-News, referring reporters to prepared statements posted on Iconic Village’s Facebook page.
The ATF’s National Response Team is deployed to assist local and state entities in large fire incidents, such as the San Marcos fatalities. The federal agency will try to issue a report on what caused the fire within 30 days, after numerous lab and field tests have been conducted, though that report could be completed sooner, said Paul Claflin, a certified explosives specialist and team leader with the ATF.