WHITEWATER—Sarell Martin was working in Madison on Wednesday night when his fiancee called with bad news.
A fire had started at the University Gardens Apartments, where Martin's financee lives with his 3-year-old twins.
The UW-Whitewater public relations student rushed back to Whitewater and was "bombarded" by flashing lights when he arrived at the apartment building. Crews from 28 fire departments were working to extinguish the fire.
Martin searched frantically for his family and found them sitting in an ambulance with blankets given to them by UW-W students.
His fiancee's apartment was considered an “unaffected area,” he said, but power and utilities had been shut off for the whole complex. Residents were not allowed to return.
Martin said he was “livid.” Where was his family supposed to stay?
A little before 9 p.m., Martin called a trusted professor he knew lived in the area. He just wanted some blankets for his family.
Jim Disrude, a communications lecturer at UW-W and Martin's academic adviser, called Martin back. He said he had worked out a deal to get Martin and his family a hotel room at the Super 8.
“In the midst of such a tragic moment,” Martin said, “the amount of beauty and care on display, it was captivating.”
“Sarell is such a wonderful person,” Disrude said. “It put some things at ease for him. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be in his position last night, and it made this decision pretty easy.”
The fire displaced more than 200 residents of the University Gardens Apartments, said Barbara Behling, the state American Red Cross spokeswoman. The building has more than 100 units.
The apartment building was still closed Thursday. However, the Whitewater Police Department issued a statement Thursday evening that the building had been released to Cardinal Capital Management, which will determine which apartments will remain closed and which will be reopened.
Whitewater fire Capt. Joe Uselding said the fire directly affected about eight apartments, and those would be closed “for the foreseeable future.”
At 6:31 p.m. Wednesday, the fire department responded to 370 N. Tratt St. for a report of smoke coming from an apartment, according to a news release. Crews reported a fire in one of the common hallways that had spread through a doorway to the exterior of the building.
Uselding said the fire blocked a stairwell, forcing some residents to jump out of second-story windows. Still, he said there were no major injuries to residents or firefighters. He said one person suffered smoke inhalation.
Uselding said fire crews were on the scene for about four hours Wednesday.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the State Fire Marshal's office, according to the release.
The Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association issued a statement expressing concern about the apartment's lack of sprinklers.
Uselding said the apartment building was not required to have sprinklers, but buildings constructed after 2011 are. If the apartments are rebuilt, they will have to have sprinklers, he said.
Two other UW-W students displaced by the fire have found housing at Fox Meadows Apartments, Jeff Angileri, assistant university spokesman, said in an email. University Gardens Apartments are community apartments, not UW-W housing.
Behling said 19 people stayed with the Red Cross on Wednesday night at the Starin Park Community Building, 504 W. Starin Road.
“Last night, we were providing food, comfort, medications, a shoulder to lean on,” Behling said.
She said the Red Cross will help people find more permanent housing.
The Red Cross, schools, churches and other charities are creating a multi-agency resource center to help displaced families, according to a Red Cross news release. The center will provide food, clothing, computer kiosks, phone-charging stations and help with paperwork.
It will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in the Whitewater Middle School cafeteria, 401 S. Elizabeth St.
The Wisconsin Arson Insurance Council is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to people who might have been responsible for the fire. Call Whitewater police Detective Derrick Schleis at 262-473-0555, ext. 4, or Walworth County CrimeStoppers at 262-723-2677.
-- Visit redcross.org/donate, call 1-800-REDCROSS/733-2767 or text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
-- Contributions also can be sent to the local Red Cross chapter at 2600 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee WI 53233 or to the Whitewater Unified School District Family Emergency Fund at the school district's central office, 419 S. Elizabeth St., Whitewater.
-- The Congregational United Church of Christ, 133 S. Franklin St., Whitewater, is collecting clothes to give to the displaced families, said Barbara Behling, the state American Red Cross spokeswoman.
-- Food donations may be given to the Whitewater Food Pantry.
Residents of the building can call University Gardens Apartments at 262-472-7087 to find out whether they can return to their apartments.