TWINSBURG -- The cause of a three-alarm fire Feb. 11 at Whitewood Apartments is undetermined, fire investigators say, after searing heat badly damaged everything inside.
Nikki Effords, the 45-year-old female resident who was asleep in the apartment at the time the fire broke out, was uninjured thanks to the heroic efforts of her neighbor, Wade Wooten.
Wooten, a U.S. Navy veteran, saw flames coming from the apartment two units down in the 4-unit complex, "climbed to the second story rear balcony [at the fire-stricken apartment], woke up the sleeping resident and both parties jumped to safety from the rear balcony," according to Twinsburg firefighters.
In a recent interview with the Bulletin, Wooten said he saw smoke coming from Efford's apartment. He went in through the front and into the apartment as far as he could before the heat stopped him. He shouted at Efford's, who had been asleep, and she responded. He told her to go outside on the balcony. He went back outside, around the complex and climbed up to her balcony.
Wooten said the rail then gave way, sending them both to the ground.
"I told her, we gotta get out of here," Wooten said, adding Effords wanted to go back in because her dogs were inside "but I scooped her up and got out." The dogs perished in the fire.
"By the time we got out and hit the ground, smoke was already coming out of her bedroom. It was beyond going back in," Wooten said.
Twinsburg Fire Chief Tim Morgan commended Wooten for not allowing Effords to go back inside.
"Many people don't realize this, but most fire fatalities are a result of smoke inhalation, not burning," Morgan said.
Wooten was transported to the hospital with smoke inhalation and released. No other injuries were reported and no firefighters were injured in the blaze, Morgan said.
Effords is staying with family and all other residents have returned to their apartments, Morgan said.
According to firefighters, the Twinsburg Fire Department responded with an engine and ladder company to Whitewood Apartments "to a working fire" at 4:51 p.m. Firefighters say they found the end apartment of the 4-unit complex fully engulfed with "heavy black smoke and flames coming out the front and rear of the apartment."
Because the complex was built from pre-cast reinforced concrete, adjoining units suffered "minimal damage." Efford's apartment "is a total loss," Morgan said.
"It makes for a tough fire fight -- it's like an oven -- but it does save the surrounding structures," Morgan said.
Firefighter and paramedic Dan Wagner said the high temperatures can also limit an investigation.
"Concrete provides fire prevention of the highest order," Wagner said. "But it also absorbs heat. We took an appliance -- an oven -- in to be examined, but it was totally destroyed. The cause is undetermined."