I took one look at the charred husk of the apartment building, and recognition hit immediately. Even broken and blackened, the Tiffany Square Apartments were as familiar to me as they were 25 years ago.

In the early morning hours of Halloween, massive flames engulfed the apartment complex, killing a mother and daughter, injuring 10 others and leaving a host of families homeless. Some were forced to jump from the second story to avoid a wall of flames while others had time to grab children and nothing else before rushing to safety. Those who made it out watched their worldly possessions burn before their eyes.

The juxtaposition of the inferno and water park across the street is almost literary.

Run by the City of Lakewood, Surfside Spray Park sits directly across 9th Avenue from the Tiffany Square Apartments. Closed for the season, it provides a cool summer respite for residents along Lakewood’s eastern border where it abuts Denver.

Two and a half decades ago, it used to be a community pool, and I spent the summer between my high school junior and senior years working there as a lifeguard.

My family lived behind the Green Mountain Rec Center, and I spent cold months watching lap swimmers in the musty, enclosed pool there. But in the summers, I wanted to be outdoors. It ensured I could get a killer tan, sun streaks in my hair and plenty of entertainment watching kids home from school splashing in the pool and dashing along its edges.

Many of those kids lived in the Tiffany Square Apartments.

The apartments there provide some of the few affordable housing, income-restricted homes in Lakewood. Rent is based on residents’ income, and there is almost always a waitlist. Most worked hard but had little disposable income.

For example, I vividly remember Santiago the Burrito Guy. He lived there and he would wake up every morning at 4 a.m. to prepare the burritos he would pack into his rolling cooler and sell in the area around Sheridan and Colfax every day. Surfside proved a boon for him — he knew I would by a breakfast burrito at 5:30 a.m. while I watched swim practice. He would return at lunch and sell an entire cooler to kids and families and lifeguards.

☀ MORE IN OPINION

But people like Santiago did not have extra money for day care. Consequently, their kids were often left to their own devices. For the kids living in the Tiffany Square Apartments, that usually meant spending the day at the pool. I got to know — and scold and chase and splash and laugh with and befriend — many of them.

Surfside provided a safe haven in an otherwise tough neighborhood.

One morning I pulled in just after 5 a.m. and saw a parking lot flashing with police lights across the street. One officer was taping off an apartment and others were milling around. Santiago was offering some burritos. One of the apartment kids standing at the fence saw my confused expression and came over to talk. Apparently, a woman had been shot repeatedly at her door just an hour or so before.

This middle school-aged boy said it so matter-of-factly that it took a minute to sink in that this was not as abnormal for him as it was for me. I was grateful every day I saw him at the pool the rest of the summer; it meant he wasn’t in trouble and was safe.

Obviously it made my heart sink to hear that the Lakewood police are now searching for two juveniles — probably about the same age as the boy who told me about the shooting. They are accused of pouring gasoline along the apartments and setting the blaze. They will face arson and murder charges when arrested.

I drove by the makeshift memorial Thursday on my way to an appointment downtown. I parked in the Surfside lot and stared over at the buildings, surely as confused and heartbroken as 25 years before.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.

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Mario Nicolais

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq