"It could have been so much worse," is a sentiment that many of the residents at Cooper Towers share regarding the early Monday morning fire that startled them from their sleep and forced them out of their apartments into the rain.
"This was my first experience in a fire," third-floor resident Bernard Lintz said. "There was a lot of smoke. You couldn't see to go down the stairs to get out."
The thick black smoke from the fire on the second floor filled the stairways of the building, making it difficult to see or breathe for residents trying to escape from the floors above.
"It stung your eyes and burnt the back of your throat and nose," fifth-floor resident Connie Gregg said. She wasn't going to leave the building at first, figuring the alarm to be another safety drill, but when a message beeped into each room over the intercom system in the residents' phones, she changed her mind. "I just didn't think it was real until I heard that message."
According to the residents, fire drills are a common occurrence in the building.
"When I heard that message, and looked out the window to see the lights and the firemen downstairs, that's when I knew it was for real and I left in a hurry," Gregg said.
The residents were quick to praise the firemen from Brazil City Fire Dept., Van Buren and Posey Township Volunteer Fire Departments, members of Clay County Search and Rescue and the Brazil City Police Department.
"The firemen did an incredible job getting everyone out," sixth-floor resident Don Dowell said. Unaware of what was happening, he was asleep for a while before the alarm woke him. "The elevators were off because of the fire, and by the time I got to the stairwell on the east side black smoke was boiling up from below. I think it was because people had to open the doors to get out and the smoke just got thicker each time a door opened. It really could have been a bad situation, real bad."
The elevators being off caused problems for many of the handicapped residents that lived above the second floor.
"I almost didn't make it out. I'm not supposed to walk without my walker because of a fractured hip, but I had to last night if I was going to get out. I hung on to the railings with both hands going down with a man behind me carrying my walker. Everyone was helping each other," sixth-floor resident Sanford "Sandy" Sanders said after his release from St. Vincent Clay Hospital Monday afternoon. "I made it to the third floor and just couldn't go any further. That's when two firemen rescued me. I'm so glad everyone got out all right."
As of Monday afternoon one resident was still hospitalized at Regional Hospital due to smoke inhalation and many of the displaced residents from the second floor were staying with relatives during the clean-up.
In the chaos of the night, residents from other buildings came to the aide of their neighbors.
"I've got friends that live in Cooper Towers," Bruce Murdock gave for his reason for helping bring down a wheel chair for one of the handicapped residents rescued by firemen. "I saw the police arrive, and then the fire department, from my apartment window on the fourth floor of the Meridian Towers across the street. I could see the smoke in the windows, so I came right over. I just wanted to help if I could."
Residents from the surrounding apartment buildings came out to help victims of the fire get in out of the rain and offered places to stay until the building reopened.
"Everyone has been so great," Lintz said. "The Brazil Housing Authority has been helping everyone today. The Red Cross has been here offering help in the clean-up, food for people and got rooms for people from the second floor to stay in at the Villa Motel."
Late Monday afternoon the fire alarm, which was damaged in the fire, was still periodically going off, rattling the nerves of the remaining residents that have returned to their apartments in the building. Workers on the scene expect it to be repaired quickly, but when ever it is, it won't be soon enough for the residents.
The smell of smoke lingers in the building.
No one has slept yet.
The signs of fatigue show on the residents' faces, but their spirits are high as they sit on benches outside and share their individual stories with each other, finding humor among what could have been a terrible tragedy.
Fire Chief Tobey Archer praised the firemen at the scene, but he also praised the residents of Cooper Towers.
"They really assisted the firefighters in helping to save themselves," Archer told The Brazil Times. "They pounded on doors and made noise to help the firefighters find them if they were trapped. They did what they were supposed to do."