5 killed, several injured in retirement community fire

Hundreds evacuated, 75 rescued from Wedgwood Senior Living Center in Castle Hills

SAN ANTONIO – Five people were killed and more than a dozen were hospitalized after a fire ripped through the Wedgwood Senior Living Center in Castle Hills Sunday morning. The fire started around 6 a.m. in the 6700 block of Blanco Road.

Injured residents were taken to San Antonio Military Medical Center, Baptist Hospital and Methodist Hospital for treatment.

"When I opened the door there was smoke like crazy, and that's when I decided to go into my apartment," said Carmen Johnson, a resident.

Fear and anxiety spread through the entire retirement community, as elderly residents hung out of open windows trying to escape smoke and flames.

Johnson called 911 and told dispatchers which sixth-floor apartment she was in. Twenty minutes later, a firefighter finally found her and told her to run if she could.

"Run? I can't even walk," she said. "And I don't know how he did it, but he carried me in his arms and went all the way to the fire escape and came down the fire escape." 

Firefighters rescued about 75 other people who were trapped inside the 11-story structure or were physically disabled and couldn't walk. First-floor resident Jimmy Storment tried to save people on the third floor, where he was told the fire started.

"They were screaming for help and I was telling them, 'Come out on the ledge,' so they could breathe because the smoke had already overtaken them," Storment said.

Dozens were rescued off of ledges by ladders and platform trucks. The building lies in Castle Hills' fire district, but the blaze got so big they had to bring in emergency vehicles from all over Bexar County. Two huge Emergency Task Force evacuation ambulances were also needed. More than 150 firefighters fought to save everyone they could.

"After looking at the floors, it's amazing we did not have more loss of life," said San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood. "The third floor hallway is absolutely gutted. The doors are charred, the fire and smoke were communicated throughout the building."

Patricia Vasquez's mother and sister were on the third floor when the fire started.

"About six o'clock in the morning my sister called me asking me if I had the telephone number to the office or somebody in which to tell them the fire alarm was going off," Vasquez said. 

Multiple residents said the fire alarms are known to go off even though there is no fire.

The evacuees were bussed to Churchill High School, where the Red Cross and the Castle Hills Women's Club brought them food and blankets. Castle Hills police helped coordinate victims with their necessary medications and reunite residents with family members.

"At one point, this place, Churchill High School, was absolutely packed with people," said Bill Dorman, with the Red Cross. "I would say about 400-500 people (were here)."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. At least one of the three residents who were injured was listed in critical condition. The names of the victims had not been released as of 6:30 a.m. Monday.

Residents said they were told it would be several days before they would be allowed to return. Patricia Vasquez said the quick response by Wedgwood staff and emergency responders gives her enough confidence to allow her mother to return. "I feel very comfortable bringing her back," she said.

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