Portland apartment building on brink of collapsing after fire

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 4:22 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Portland Fire officials are now concerned that a downtown apartment building that was badly damaged by a fire on Tuesday, displacing nearly 100 people, is on the brink of collapsing.

The apartment building, known as The May, is more than 100 years old and the fire that ripped through the third and fourth floor possibly caused structural damage, according to those close to the investigation.

Bricks and masonry started to crumble down and onto the closed street in front of the building on Wednesday afternoon around 4 p.m., shortly after a news conference about the latest on the fire investigation.

Rick Graves, a spokesperson for the fire department, said crews extinguished the last remaining “hot spot” but on Wednesday investigators “red-tagged” the building. Meaning no civilians can enter the structure on Southwest 14th Avenue and Southwest Taylor Street.

“This building is of imminent concern to collapse,” said Graves. “This is an unreinforced masonry building that was effectively being held together by the floors.”

On Tuesday, firefighters made dozens of rescues and no people were reported missing or injured but they confirmed some pets died in the fire.

“These floors are now extremely damaged and affected by fire, flame and water. So, there’s a heavy concern, or a significant concern, we could lose this building at any time. In fact, when we’re just blowing water gently on one side of the building, we make sure everybody on the other side of the building is away. It’s that perilous,” said Graves at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Graves added that a forensic investigation would start on Friday with drone support from Scappoose fire officials and the city engineer has approved one fireman to enter the building with a rescue crew close by as they look into the origin of the fire.

Graves said that nearby streets around the area of the building would remain closed until Saturday.

“If it is determined that it is a threat to the safety of the community and the safety of citizens, an encouraging process needs to go through to have the building taken down,” Graves said.

Two firefighters received minor injuries during the struggle to contain the blaze on Tuesday. One was sent home for a cardiac issue related to exertion and another was hit in the head with a piece of glass.

The Red Cross has set up temporary housing for some of the residents who lost their homes in the low-income building.

Blanchet House, a Portland-based organization, says that many of those who lost their homes have been devastated by the loss.

“These are people who worked so hard to become housed, sober, and employed after experiencing homelessness,” Blanchet House wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “Now they are homeless again. Low income housing that was offered to tenants is rare in Portland. Where will they live? For now we’ve offered room to some but we don’t have enough room for everyone who lost their homes.

“This is a dire situation for people who were just barely hanging on to their housing. It will take them months to find affordable housing and they might not. That means leaving jobs and move elsewhere if they can afford it,” they added.

It has been an unstable six months for the May Apartments according to city documents.   Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) confirmed the complex was  cited back in December for 10 fire safety violations, and the building’s owner at the time failed to fix them, resulting in fines.

Some of the violations included exposed wiring in the lobby, and fire extinguishers that were not displayed or mounted properly. Coincidentally on Monday,  May 15, a day before the fire, Portland BDS confirmed with Fox 12 the building once again was inspected, and an inspector  found most violations had finally been corrected.

Brittney Hanset managed the May from 2018 to Nov. 2022 and lived there as well. Hanset says she is sad to know it appears the building took a turn for the worse after she left.

“During my time here there were a lot of inspections just like there are in any buildings,” said Hanset. “And just like in any building, things would come up and we’d deal with them.”

Hanset says after she transitioned out of her property manager role at the May, she is not sure what day-to-day maintenance of the building was like.

“I obviously wasn’t here so I can’t speak to that, I think it’s unfortunate, devastating, the whole situation.”

The company that owns the May is called SkyNat, and a man named Larry Kelley is in charge.

Kelley was at the May on Wednesday surveying the damage, and identified himself to reporters when approached, but avoided answering questions about the building’s fire safety code violations. He referred to the pending investigation by Portland Fire.

For Hanset, she says the last two days have been devastating for her seeing her former residents who have lost everything. She said one resident and friend she reunited with after the blaze was an especially emotional moment, as the friend had nothing but her cat and the clothes she was wearing on the day of the fire.

“She went from smiling to ‘Now I’ve got to go to Target to get clothes, because this is all I own.’” said Hanset. “And that’s so real. She has her cat and the dress she was wearing”

Hanset has set up a GoFundMe to help the displaced residents.