Damage estimate placed at $150,000 in Janesville fire

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Shelly Birkelo
Friday, February 22, 2013

— Lester Dutcher lost everything, including photographs of his late parents, in a Thursday morning apartment fire.

Steve Rinehart didn't know what happened to his cat.

Kim Hussaini fled the flames barefoot, wearing a nightgown under a winter coat—the only clothes she now owns.

The fire, reported at 2:21 a.m., displaced six families—11 adults and five children—who had lived in the 12-unit Franklin Court Apartments building at 2621 Harvard Drive, said Jim Ponkauskas, Janesville Fire Department shift commander.

Smoke was pouring from the building and people were trapped on two second-floor balconies when Janesville police officer Benjamin Thompson arrived.

Dutcher's nieces—Makayla Berg, 14, and Kalynn Sieling, 8—were standing on the balcony hollering for help. Another tenant ran over and told the girls' mom to toss the kids down and he'd catch them, said Dutcher, 53, who lived in apartment No. 5.

“Then I carried them across the parking lot to my ex-wife Gloria Dutcher's apartment,” he said.

Hussaini, 51, had just drifted off to sleep while watching TV on the couch in apartment No. 6 when the smoke alarm woke her.

After waking her 15-year-old son, Nicholas Fierros, who was sleeping down the hall, she alerted other tenants.

“I pounded on their bedroom windows. They had no clue there was a fire. I just wanted to save those kids,'' she said.

The fire started in the basement of the building and caused $150,000 damage, Ponkauskas said.

The cause remained under investigation Thursday by the police and fire departments, he said.

Fire crews remained on scene for five hours.

Hussaini didn't realize until later that she might have had time to grab clothes and shoes. She was left barefoot with only a nightgown and winter coat.

“It was so hard to walk across that ice-covered parking lot with no shoes. It was really painful,” she said eight hours later as her feet started to warm.

She spoke while eating McDonald's breakfast food the Red Cross had brought to her and other fire victims in the cafeteria at St. William Catholic Church.

Rinehart was at work nearing the end of his 12-hour shift when a police officer arrived at his workplace and informed him about the fire. They told him they were able to save his dog and birds, which found refuge in a vacant nearby apartment building that is part of the three-building complex.

Rinehart said he had nowhere to go and might bunk with Hussaini and her son.

“Everybody should be able to come together and share what we have,” he said.

The building is owned by Mike and Gail Scieszinski .

Residents didn't know Thursday when they would be able to return to their apartments, but the apartment management had arranged alternative housing, and the Red Cross provided bedding.

Fire department reports indicate six people were taken to Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center: Hussaini; Stacy Sieling, 38; Britni Frusher, 28; Makayla Berg, 14; Nicholas Fierros, 15; and Kalynn Sieling, 8.

Hussaini and Sieling was treated and released, but a Mercy spokeswoman said she had no information to release about Frusher. Mercy does not release information about the condition of juveniles, she said.

Last updated: 8:08 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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