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Apt. fire investigation continues

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An investigation into the cause of the Jan. 3 apartment fire continues, as tenants rebuild their lives. Photo by James Mathews.

Published in the Asheville Tribune and Weaverville Tribune, February 2016

By Heather Berry

Buncombe County – While displaced renters from the Jan. 3 Rock Bridge Apartment fire in Barnardsville work to rebuild their lives, the burn victims continue to fight for their own. Robert Ventura, his wife, Sarah, and their 9-year-old son Cayden remain in intensive care at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

According to Robert Ventura’s sister, Michelle Ventura, of Weaverville, Robert’s life nearly came to end last week when doctor’s warned the family the outcome was uncertain for the 41 year-old’s second surgery. Robert, however, survived the surgery and his condition has improved, according to Michelle.

“He made it through that big surgery, thank God,” she said. “He is off the ventilator, which is very good. He talks, but in whispers.” The family continues to ask for the community’s prayers andn support. “Please keep praying and, if possible, keep sharing the GoFundMe for them,” she added. Sarah Ventura, according to Michelle, suffered the worst from the fire, with burns on 80 to 90 percent of her body. Robert and Cayden both have burns on 50 percent of their bodies.

According to Michelle, Sarah, inadvertently, started the fire by lighting a match in the early morning of Jan. 3. The fi re started with an explosion, possibly the result of a gas leak, said Michelle. The Ventura family is raising financial donations through a GoFundMe.com account, <www.gofundme.com/xnvynbcc>, to offset the costs of the hospitalization and other recovery-related expenses. The Ventura family has no health insurance.

While the Red Cross is able to help in terms of food, shelter and clothing for victims of fire, the organization is not able to help with the many expenses which go along with family members traveling distances to a burn center.

With the donations received thus far, $19,680 at press time, the amount is small in relation to what’s ahead for the family of three. Other renters from Rock Bridge, which is now condemned, are working to rebuild their lives.

Larry Prayter, age 67, lived at Rock Bridge for 13 months before the fire forced him from his home. Today, Prayter lives with his cousin in Weaverville. He didn’t ask for any help from the Red Cross. “I didn’t want to take any help when it could be used for someone who really needed it,” said Prayter. While some of his neighbors lost everything in the fire, Prayter considers himself lucky because his belongings only suffered minor smoke damage. “I didn’t lose anything because my apartment was far enough away; the Lord blessed me there,” he added.

A former fireman, Prayter said memories from the tragedy weigh heavily on his mind. A friend of the Ventura family, Prayter said he recalls vividly the severity of the family’s burns. “I knew the little boy pretty well and he was burned really bad,” said Prayter. “I woke up and smelled smoke,” recalled Prayter who lived alone. His apartment was on the opposite end of the complex from Ventura’s apartment.

The fire trucks, said Prayter, hadn’t arrived yet when he walked out his door. “There was one lady running along and beating on doors to wake people up,” said Prayter. “She lived closer to the fire,” Prayter added.

“It was really cold and people were standing outside,” Prayter recalled. “Just a minute seems like a long time during something like that,” he added.

According to Prayter, when he came outside, he noticed the Ventura family had been placed in a tenant’s vehicle before emergency personnel arrived. The Barnardsville Fire Department, along with support from more than 10 area fire departments and emergency service agencies, responded to the structure fire at 2:30 a.m. Jan 3. According to Barnardsville Fire Chief Kevin Mundy, 49 firefighters helped contain the fire. “We had fire departments from Barnardsville, Jupiter, Reems Creek, French Broad, Woodfin, Mars Hill, Reynolds, West Buncombe, Buncombe EMS and Buncombe County Rescue Squad.

We had 49 firefighters altogether from 10 different agencies,” said the Chief days after the fire. The fire remains under investigation by the Buncombe County Arson Task Force. According to Buncombe County Deputy Fire Marshal Terry Gentry, the unsafe condition of the burned building has delayed the investigation.

“Part of the structure is not safe to be in, so we plan to be there when they start demolition again and use the heavy equipment to pull things out for us to look at,” Gentry said. When asked if the fi re was started by an explosion, Gentry responded there has been no evidence so far to support any gas leak or explosion. He added, however, that the investigators haven’t been able to determine yet where the fire started. “There was no explosion in the area of the apartment where we have investigated for any type of explosion,” he said. “We are still unsure where the fire started.”