One dead in fire at Lakeland retirement facility

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One person was killed and two others were hospitalized, when flames ripped through part of an independent living facility in Lakeland on Sunday.

Firefighters were dispatched to the Bella Vista Manor, 810 E. Bella Vista Street, around 4:30 a.m.

"The flames were coming out and they were shooting up to the fourth floor. I thought it was strange that there were no fire trucks," said Carole Pepin, who lives across the street. She said she was the first person to spot the fire and called 911.

Firefighters arrived within four minutes. They found heavy smoke and flames pouring from a room on the fourth floor of the five-story building.

"This is really a worst case scenario," said Battalion Chief Michael Williams. "This is a five-story building that is independent living, so we had to people that may or may not be able to ambulate well."

There was no way to evacuate residents from the outside. The only two stairwells were inside the building, according to firefighters. The elevator was not an option.

"Basically, we had the Lakeland Police Department and Lakeland Fire Department kind of teaming up. Our firefighters were handing patients to the police officers in the stairwell and they were carrying them down, so for 15 or 20 minutes, it was really a very busy, hectic scene," said Chief Williams.

The facility did not have fire sprinklers, according to firefighters, because it was built in the early 1970's, pre-dating the city's sprinkler requirements.

During their search, firefighters found one resident deceased in a room on the fourth floor. Two others were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

Firefighters and staff moved the 41 residents to another building on site.

Gloria Lawson came to the facility Sunday morning to check on her son, who's a 38-year-old resident with special needs. She was never alerted to the blaze, but rather, found out while watching the news.

"I'm just wondering is he OK, hoping that nothing harmful happened to him…All of them have a disability problems, so I'm making sure he had [nothing to do with the fire]," said Lawson. Her son was not injured.

As the scene was cleared, firefighters took residents one-by-one back to their rooms to retrieve needed medication.

The name of the deceased resident has not yet been released. The cause of the fire is under investigation.