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College Students Stunned After Losing Home To Weekend Fire

Apartment after fire
Jessica Wenberg
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The fire took over two hours to bring under control and required fire crews to rotate in and out of the operation due to the extreme cold.

Many college students who called the Sugar Creek Apartments home are adjusting to their new reality after Saturday’s fire, even as others are reaching out to help their displaced neighbors.

The large fire destroyed or heavily damaged 12 apartment units at the complex, near Linden Street and Vernon Avenue. Authorities said Tuesday it was caused by repair work going on in the building.

Sugar Creek resident Jessica Wenberg said she’s heard First Site is knocking down the side that sustained heavy damage. Her apartment has smoke damage and will be demolished with the other units on that side.

“I met with them today to pretty much discuss my options of what to do next," Wenberg said Monday. "My unit wasn’t super affected, but because of how bad it was on the other side, they are just knocking it down. So I’m essentially homeless right now.”

Wenberg said First Site maintenance has been conducting regular heat checks. Wenberg said on the day of the fire, her building’s water was shut off due to an issue with a resident’s tub.

“They shut all of that (water) off. The fire started an hour and a half later,” she said.

Wenberg lived on the third floor with her roommate, Liz Williams. Wenberg was not home at the time of the fire, adding there was no fire extinguisher in her unit. 

Williams said she was awakened from a nap when a Normal police officer knocked on her door to alert her to the fire. She said a fire alarm in her apartment did not go off. 

“I thought for sure it was going to spread all the way. Just from the time I got out of my apartment to the time we left ... it was coming through the roof," Williams said. "The firefighters were like, ‘We need ladders! We need ladders!’ They were taking their axes and stuff, and I saw them putting on their smoke face shields," said Williams. "It was a big adrenaline rush. I wasn’t properly clothed and I didn’t think to grab anything else.”

First Site has temporarily housed residents in a local hotel. Wenberg said First Site offered unfurnished, residential housing further from campus, adding she was working on getting the rest of her undamaged belongings on Tuesday. Fire victims are to collect their belongings between 3-4 p.m. Monday through Friday of this week.

“At this point I’m just trying to salvage what I can,” said Wenberg.

yo.jpg
Credit Jessica Wenberg
Normal Fire Department Investigation Team is working to determine the origin and cause of the fire.

Williams and Wenberg are both nursing majors. Williams said she didn’t even think about being a nurse amid the fear.

“I was just so freaked out, but all the first responders there were so good and were doing everything. They would just come up to you and you didn’t have to find someone. It gave me some good hope. I like doing that for other people ... so it was nice to see it on the other side,” said Williams.

Helping neighbors

First responders weren’t the only ones reaching out to those who found themselves without a home on Saturday.

Illinois State student Max Martin lives in the nearby Vernon Stables complex. He got an unexpected phone call Saturday.

“I was like, ‘What the hell? This kid never calls me.’ I missed it but I texted him right back and asked, ‘Hey, man what’s going on?” and he texts back and says, ‘My apartment is on fire.’ I was like, ‘Oh! OK.’ We got him over here and we didn’t think it was that bad at first, not at all. He didn’t hear any alarms or anything. His fire alarm never went off in his apartment. He woke up with black smoke just pumping into his vents and he didn’t even get his glasses. He got his phone, wallet and keys and got out,” said Martin.

Martin offered his place to that friend, Devlan, where together they watched the flames scorch through the roof from afar.

“They knew ... no matter what it was gone. Even yesterday, (Monday) we went to look and we could just see straight through their apartment pretty much. They lost laptops and computers and they had really nice PCs. They had both just done an upgrade,” said Martin.

Martin and Devlan are both on the Redbird Esports “Rainbow Six Siege” team. Martin said he runs the team’s “Rainbow Six Siege” Twitter and posted a tweet, asking for donations for Devlan and his roommate, that got some immediate attention.

Martin has managed to raise nearly $2,000 for the displaced students so far on Venmo. He is hoping to set up a GoFundMe in order to keep up with the amount of giving.

“I love these kids too much to see them lose everything like that. The power of social media, there’s so much more we can do. I got to work," said Martin. 

Wenberg said the devastation hasn’t set in yet.

“I saw the apartment and I freaked out. Even though it wasn’t necessarily my apartment, it was just so scary to see. It really doesn’t feel real. I feel like at this point, until I get in there and see what the damage actually is if there is any, I feel like that will make it more real, when I am moving stuff out," she said.

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Catrina Petersen is an intern at WGLT focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.