Andrea Jackson stood alone on a small, rickety metal platform, terrified her life was about to end.
Minutes earlier on this May 8 afternoon she sat at a dining room table with her friend and roommate Beth Dolajeck discussing whether to take a trip to the laundromat or go fishing.
“I know we should go do laundry, but it sure would be nice to go fish instead,” a smiling Jackson told Dolajeck.
Then the duo’s plans took an unintended turn. They suddenly heard a “whoosh” sound and turned to see flames licking a nearby door of their second-floor apartment at 1510 E. Madison St., just northeast of downtown Eau Claire.
Jackson, 49, and Dolajeck, 28, jumped up from their chairs, filled plastic containers with water and tried to douse the door. But the flames roared higher, and billowing smoke began to fill the apartment. Then they heard a loud “pop.”
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” Dolajeck yelled to Jackson and one of their housemates, Michael Hibbard, 51, who was home at the time. “That sound was the gas line. This place is going to blow.”
First Dolajeck, then Jackson headed for a door that led to a small balcony outside. Hibbard, Jackson and Dolajeck coughed and gasped for air as dark smoke filled the room, Dolajeck stretched the T-shirt she wore to cover her face.
“We’re gonna die,” Dolajeck thought. “There’s no getting out of here.”
Dolajeck made it to the balcony serving as a fire escape first and was followed by Jackson. The space was too small for Hibbard to stand there too, so Dolajeck climbed over the railing and clung to the balcony’s outside, allowing Hibbard to access it.
A couple of neighbors gathered at the site and urged the trio to jump. Despite the nearing flames and intense smoke, they couldn’t bring themselves to do so.
Then other neighbors showed up with a ladder and Dolajeck and Hibbard climbed down. They were relieved to reach the ground, safe from the fire. But they feared for their roommate, who was still on the balcony after not being able to climb over its edge. Dolajeck yelled for help, then crumpled on the front lawn, sobbing in fear for her friend.
As the fire raged, Jackson’s boyfriend, 50-year-old John LeBlanc, who was outside with his 4-year-old daughter Autumn when the blaze started, sprang into action. He ran to the home’s back side, grabbed a shovel and tried to break down a door to access the apartment. But he gave that up when the growing fire got too close.
He ran to the front of the home, screaming for help, and spied the trio on the balcony. He saw first Dolajeck, then Hibbard descend the ladder. But his girlfriend couldn’t climb over a balcony railing. He watched in anguish as the fire burned closer to Jackson. “Oh my God, she can’t escape,” he thought desperately.
Jackson thought she was a goner too. As she watched and listened to her friends and bystanders below yell anxiously, she decided to enter the house, back into the heart of the fire, in a desperate attempt to escape through a back window. Despite the danger, it was her only chance to live, she figured.
“I’m not gonna make it,” she said to herself.
Rather than watch his girlfriend die, LeBlanc decided to return to the rear of the home and find a way in somehow. Then he heard voices and looked up the street to see a skid steer headed toward the house.
A group of landscapers were revamping a nearby yard and heard the commotion of the fire scene. They drove the skid steer there and used the machine to get to Jackson.
Quaking with fear, she clung to the balcony as two men helped get her into the machine’s bucket, then lowered her to the ground.
“I’ve never been so glad to reach the ground in all my life,” Jackson said.
The fire that displaced 13 people and caused $140,000 in damage remains under investigation, Eau Claire Fire Department Capt. Tony Biasi said.
On Tuesday afternoon Jackson, Dolajeck and LeBlanc revisited the charred remains of the apartment where they lived since last year. With the help of Eau Claire firefighters they retrieved a set of keys to a vehicle. Then they visited the blackened back of the house where the fire appears to have started, discussing the harrowing events of the fire that burned virtually all of their belongings.
They marveled at the now-blackened door to their apartment propped against the house’s side. They pointed to the dining room table Jackson and Dolajeck sat at when the fire started. Then their visit to their former home turned difficult as the enormity of the fire’s impact on their lives surfaced.
“We need to walk away from this,” LeBlanc said, showing burns the fire caused to his left arm. “Bad memories.”
Since the fire the trio — Leader-Telegram delivery workers — and four others in the apartment have stayed at Eau Claire’s Rodeway Inn & Suites. But money is low, and they said they would have to leave the hotel soon, leaving them homeless.
“We don’t have much money and don’t have anywhere to live,” LeBlanc said.
Another family of six who lived in the apartment also was displaced, officials said.
Despite their challenges, Jackson, LeBlanc and Dolajeck try to be optimistic. They praise their good fortune that they were able to escape the fire, thanks to neighbors with a ladder and workers with a skid steer they call “angels from heaven.” They’re grateful for a couple of people who gave them money since. And they marvel at the fact they are alive.
“This fire was horrible, the worst thing in our lives,” Dolajeck said. “But we’re happy just to be here.”
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