canada africa partner reservation ‘Faith in humanity,’ how the Palisade community came together for fire victims | Western Colorado

‘Faith in humanity,’ how the Palisade community came together for fire victims | Western Colorado

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On the morning of April 5, an explosion rocked an apartment building on Iowa Avenue in Palisade.

Within minutes, the six-unit apartment building was completely engulfed in flames. A young woman lost her life and the residents of the building were left without homes.

The man authorities believe intentionally set fire to that building took his own life, but the surviving victims, their families and the community remain to deal with the aftermath. However, they haven’t had to deal with it alone.

Mesa County victim advocates, the Red Cross, the Town of Palisade, local churches and hundreds of people who made donations have played a part in helping those that survived the fire begin to put their lives back together.

‘I COULD SEE FLAMES’

The morning of the fire, Greg Mikolai was in his home when he got a call from his significant other, Eva Geske. She was on her way to work and said she saw black smoke rising somewhere near town.

Mikolai, who lives a few blocks north of that apartment, went to his window.

“At first I couldn’t quite tell the relationship of where it was,” Mikolai said. “I thought maybe it was somebody burning ditches or something got out of control.”

Earlier that week, Mikolai had been reelected as mayor of Palisade and would help give a press conference later that day about the fire. As he peered out his window, he was like the rest of the community wondering what had happened.

“I stepped outside and I could see the flames,” Mikolai said. “I could tell that it was right there in town. I actually was standing outside when the Mesa County Sheriff’s (Office) and everybody started showing up.”

First responders arrived quickly, but the building was already engulfed, Palisade Fire Chief Charles Balke said.

“Even from the first arriving law enforcement and fire crews, they encountered an almost fully involved building,” Balke said. “It was only a matter of, I believe, five minutes from our dispatch to first on scene fire apparatus and they reported heavy, heavy fire conditions in almost every unit.”

The fire was so intense that there was no way any of the firefighters would be able to get inside the building at that point, Balke said. The response was to put as much water as possible on it and prevent it from spreading to nearby buildings, which they did successfully.

“We did have a report of a trapped individual,” Balke said. “In any situation, that’s one of the things we have to consider and do a risk/benefit analysis in a matter of split seconds. In that type of situation, there was no way that we could safely put our people even within reasonable jeopardy to attempt a rescue.”

For firefighters who train for these situations and can potentially put their lives at risk to help members of their community who are in distress, that can weigh on them.

“We feel for those that not only lost a family member, but also lost a home and all of their belongings,” Balke said. “It’s not something that we accept lightly. It’s one of those things where we train very hard to be good at our job. This is one of those situations where it was well beyond where any entity could have had a successful outcome.”

Despite the intensity and size of the fire, crews were able to prevent it from spreading and had it controlled within a few hours. For the first responders that wasn’t the end of their work, but the response entered a new phase.

“We started looking at the next phase of things, which is calling in additional resources for investigation both from the law enforcement side and the fire side, preparing for the recovery aspect and getting victim advocates there, Red Cross contacted,” Balke said.

‘A STEADY HAND’

It didn’t take long for volunteers with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Victim Advocate Program to get to the scene, Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Victim Services Coordinator Tracy Baker said.

“We don’t have red lights and sirens, but short of that we get there as quickly as we can while obeying (traffic) laws,” Baker said. “Our people are all volunteers. So they are at home drinking their coffee or doing whatever they’re doing and they get the page and throw on their shoes and jump in the car and get there as quickly as they can.”

In this case, Baker said two volunteers were there within 15 minutes of getting the call to be of assistance to the victims. In the first minutes, that can often just be providing a steady presence.

“In this situation, before we knew that we had a crime, basically our role in the chaos of the moment was to provide some crisis intervention and hopefully a calm and steady hand for people whose lives are changing by the moment,” Baker said.

As the day progressed, Baker said the victim advocates were there to answer questions and connect victims with resources. They don’t provide financial assistance, but can make small purchases for victims, like getting a pair of shoes for someone who had just lost all of theirs.

“We also can, and did, help to line up resources,” Baker said. “Our lawyers were part of, not the whole thing, but part of getting services going at the community center — food and water and coffee, that kind of thing. Some of that is (getting) what people need to just get through these next hours while things are still very much in motion.”

The Victim Advocate Program is designed to provide initial support to victims of fires, crimes or other emergency situations, Baker said. They connected victims with the Red Cross for longer term assistance. The community also pulled together to raise funds and provide other help to the victims who had lost their homes and belongings.

CLOSE KNIT COMMUNITY

“There was a great outpouring,” Town Administrator Janet Hawkinson said. “(People wanted to know) how to help the victims during the incident. What we made known was the best thing to help the victims was gift cards and financial contributions.”

The town organized a fire rescue fund and provided a place for people to make donations. Local churches got involved as well, Hawkinson said.

“I would say hundreds of people have donated,” Hawkinson said. “So it’s been amazing just how many people have come forward. There’s been local businesses who have held fundraisers — silent auctions, concerts to help bring in funds for the victims.”

In addition to the fundraisers, members of the community came together one week later and held a vigil for the victims of the fire. Residents of Iowa Avenue and the town put purple light bulbs in their exterior lights to signify the community’s strength.

“I just really appreciate the way the community did come together and not just in terms of the donations, but for that vigil that we had there at Veterans Memorial Park,” Mikolai, who spoke at the vigil, said. “I think it shows just how close-knit a community we are in Palisade and how when something like this affects one person it seems to affect all of us because of that small-town nature we have.”

Being a close-knit community also meant the victims were known to many people in town — including Kloey Weythman, the 18-year-old that perished that day.

“It’s a small community and it has a significant impact because the victim (who died) was known throughout the community,” Balke said. “Several people in the department knew, in one way or another, some of the people that have been directly impacted. So that sits in the back of our minds.”

While he didn’t know Weythman personally, Mikolai said he knows people who did and were personally affected by the tragedy.

“The young lady, it turns out that she was the fiance of the grandson of some good friends of mine,” Mikolai said. “I found that out a little later on. You find out something like that and it just personalizes it even greater.”

The surviving victims, Hawkinson said, have been appreciative of all the donations and support they received from the community. The town has been distributing the donations it received to them.

“They all wanted to send their gratitude and thank yous to everyone that has donated and given to them,” Hawkinson said. “They have, all of them, have told me that. Some of them have been in tears. They come into our office and we give them the gifts and they start crying. It’s heartbreaking.”

COMMUNITY RESPONDS

The first responders, including the victim advocates, who responded to the fire have also been provided support in various ways. Balke, who has had a 35-year career in firefighting, said a fire like this one is hard on those that responded to it.

“Unfortunately it is not my first fatal fire,” Balke said. “I’ve had some with multiple other agencies. I’ve had apartment fires and explosions with other agencies. Even though I’ve had those, they’re all different and they’re all significant.

“It’s one of those things that I wish my crews here in Palisade never had to experience having been through it myself, knowing the confidence impacts it has on firefights because we were not able to do what we train to do and rescue everyone.”

He said the intentional nature of the fire was also something that can weigh on everyone from the first responders to the victims to the community at large.

“Just knowing it was an intentional act, it does change the psychological impacts to people,” Balke said. “We understand accidents happen all the time and equipment fails or something goes wrong, but when someone intentionally plans this then it does have a different psychological impact on responders, on a community, on the families.”

The investigation into the fire is still ongoing, Balke said, but the man who set the building on fire, 29-year-old Andrew Alderman, who also lived in the building, planned and carried out the fatal arson alone.

Going forward, Balke said his department will review their response and see what can be learned and carried forward to better serve Palisade as a fire department. He thanked the other agencies from across the valley, including Grand Junction and Mesa County, for their help as well. He also said he appreciated the response from the entire community.

“To have a sense of actual community is very humbling for me and gives me a great deal of pride in the community that I serve that they came together for everyone else’s needs,” Balke said. “The outpouring of support within our immediate community and the surrounding area, all of Mesa County, it reinstills a little bit of faith in humanity.”