Mendota begins recovering from fire that burned out an entire downtown block: ‘I’m glad I’m alive’

Former residents of the building return for salvageable items

Kathy Hartman scrambled out of her burning apartment building Monday afternoon with nothing — not even shoes on her feet.

One moment she was relaxing in her apartment, the next someone was banging on her door in a panic, telling her to get out immediately and don’t take anything.

So, Hartman did. She left everything: her purse, keys, credit cards, IDs, family pictures. She didn’t even stop to put on a pair of shoes. All she had were the clothes on her back.

“I’m glad I’m alive,” Hartman said. “I was scared to death, I didn’t know what to do.”

Hartman lived in the 15-unit apartment complex that was destroyed from a fire Monday afternoon on the 800 block of Main Street in Mendota. The fire now is under control and officials have begun investigating the cause. The buildings on the block are a total loss and will require demolition.

Fire Chief Dennis Rutishauser said at 12:15 a.m Tuesday that the seven-alarm fire was under control after nearly 11 hours.

The man who banged on Hartman’s door was her brother-in-law and building manager, Tom Alford. He said he had just returned from Home Depot and was eating lunch for about 10 to 15 minutes before the fire alarm went off.

When asked how he was feeling the day after the fire, Alford answered “I don’t know,” and rubbed his hands over his face and head. He said the reality hasn’t hit yet, but he is glad everyone got out safely. He said it starts to become real and upsetting when he thinks about his two cats, who didn’t make it out of the fire.

The investigation into the cause of the fire began Tuesday morning and was expected to conclude late Tuesday afternoon. A final report on the cause of the fire will be available in two to three weeks, according to Assistant Fire Chief Brian Fisher.

“I’m glad I’m alive. I was scared to death, I didn’t know what to do.”

—  Former apartment resident Kathy Hartman

After the investigation is complete, firefighters will go in and retrieve any family pets that died in the fire. Rutishauser said he doesn’t know how many animals are missing, but said some got out, some died and a couple ran away. Firefighters have been able to retrieve some medications and other residents’ items that were salvageable.

Temporary fencing will be erected to secure the building, and once the investigation is complete and building owners are contacted by the city, all three buildings will be torn down, Rutishauser said.

Hartman was at the scene Tuesday morning with family retrieving her truck from the parking lot. The block was quiet after Monday’s events, with a few bystanders and businesses slowly resuming normal activity.

Hartman said she has five brothers and sisters in the area and is rotating staying with each one. One of her brothers-in-law, Mark Sondgeroth, said he’s worried about Hartman finding a new apartment she can afford.

The Red Cross is helping Hartman and other residents affected by the fire. Hartman said the organization is helping a lot, giving her money and providing resources for finding a new apartment. Hartman’s family is working on finding her clothes, and one of her sisters made phone calls and talked to insurance on Hartman’s behalf for all of Tuesday morning.

The Mendota Police Department has donations from the public to help those affected by the fire, including clothes and toiletry items, such as shampoo, toothpaste, diapers and other personal items. Police Chief Greg Kellen said the department had to stop taking donations because it received so many.

Monetary donations still are being accepted through the Good Samaritan Fund, established by local churches to help with gas, groceries, emergency lodging, childcare and other needs from those displaced by the fire.

Anyone affected by the fire or who wants to make a donation may call the Mendota Police Department at 815-539-9331 or visit at 607 Eighth Ave.