“I remember the railing was hot.”
On a calm June afternoon, Anne Heathman ran her fingers along the steel railing of the balcony of her old apartment — the first time she had visited since the morning she narrowly escaped with her life.
Heathman, 76, was one of 163 seniors who fled an early-morning fire that ravaged the Windermere apartment building at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton on Nov. 17, 2018.
Heathman was awakened a little after 5 a.m. that morning by a Littleton police officer pounding on her first-floor patio door, howling for her to get out. As she struggled to make sense of what was happening, the officer bashed out her sliding glass doors, screaming FIRE, FIRE! GET OUT! He leaped back across the railing and made his way to the next unit.
Heathman cut her hand on the shattered glass of the door as she stepped onto the balcony. The unit next door was roiling in black smoke. Flames licked around the wall, clawing toward her.
An officer stood in the courtyard, yelling “YOU HAVE TO JUMP!”
Heathman put her hands on the railing, growing hot from the inferno next door, and struggled to climb on a bad knee. She pushed off as hard as she could, and landed in the waiting arms of “a very handsome young policeman.”
She clambered to her feet, but the officer was already gone. Heathman glanced back at her apartment, but the flames erupting from her neighbor’s unit were too strong.
Officers and firefighters made their way through first-floor units, kicking in doors and smashing windows in search of others. One panicked resident was found hiding in a bathtub. Another was injured as she jumped from a second-story balcony after the hallways filled with smoke.
The building along Datura Street, built in 1972, lacked many modern fire protection devices. The HVAC system, without smoke detectors to trigger dampers that would have been mandated with newer construction, continued circulating, sending smoke churning through all five floors. With no sprinkler system, the fire burned unabated. Without in-unit fire alarms, many elderly residents couldn’t hear the hallway alarms, and remained unaware of the fire until neighbors pounded on their doors.