A handful of heroes and a controversial sprinkler system helped prevent a fire in a Coupeville senior housing apartment from becoming a tragedy early Sunday morning.

“I would like to be able to help people 365 days a year instead of the other thing — law enforcement,” said Island County Deputy Scott Davis, who pulled an elderly woman from the burning building. “People always love firemen, so when I get to act like a fireman, I know people will be happy.”

A mother, daughter and Coupeville deputy were treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no serious injuries and the damage was limited.

The blaze, apparently started by a cigarette, in a first-floor apartment set off a fire alarm at the Cam-Bey Apartments on North Main Street at 12:49 a.m. Coupeville Deputy Dave Penrod was first on the scene and called for assistance after seeing smoke billowing.

Deputy Davis said he happened to be turning into Coupeville when he heard Penrod calling for help over the radio. He and Penrod went into the building to evacuate residents when they ran into 49-year-old Elizabeth Lord. The frantic, soot-covered woman said her mother, 81-year-old Myrtle Drew, was trapped inside a burning room.

Davis said he and Penrod tried to enter the first-floor apartment, but found that the smoke was just too thick to enter. “Dave pressed into the room, but he had to back out,” Davis said. “The smoke was so bad we couldn’t see anything, even if you were on your knees.”

Davis climbed out a window to the outside of the building. He looked through the living room window and saw three-to-four foot flames. He moved onto the bedroom window, which had been left opened, so he ripped off the screen and climbed partially in. The chemically smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see anything in the small room.

Davis shined his flashlight and called out. “I heard a little voice saying, ‘Help me,’” he said.

He told Drew to walk towards the light, which she did. He had her put her hands around his neck and he was able to pulled her out with some effort. “She was so fragile,” he said. “It took a little bit to get her out.”

While Davis was pulling the woman to safety, Penrod went door-to-door to evacuate everyone from the building. According to Marshal Lenny Marlborough, the building has about 60 occupants who went to the recreation room to wait. They were able to return to their apartment that morning.

Chief Joe Biller with Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue said firefighters were able to get into the room with hoses and knock down the fire pretty quickly. Both Central Whidbey and the Oak Harbor Fire Department responded to the scene.

Biller was one of the people who pressed to have a sprinkler system installed in Cam-Bey apartments about five years ago. In response to a 1997 fire that killed three elderly people and injured about 150 in a Bremerton senior fire, Biller and others urged the Town Council to mandate sprinklers in Cambey.

While some people questioned whether the expense was warranted, the Town Council passed a retro-fit ordinance in 1998 that required sprinklers in the apartment.

Biller said it made all the difference Sunday morning. “I truly believe that if it hadn’t been for the sprinklers, “he said, “ we would have had two fatalities. The fire started on the first floor. Without the sprinkler system, it would have extended to the second floor and we would have had a tragedy.”

Mike McIntyre agrees. He’s the director of Senior Services of Island County, a nonprofit agency that owns the apartment building. He pointed out that the town and fire department helped the agency pay for the $47,000 system. “I can assure you the fire would have been far worse if it wasn’t for the sprinklers,” he said.

McIntyre said the sprinklers and the fast-acting firefighters kept the damage at a minimum. The damage, he said, was “fairly isolated to the one apartment,” with some water damage to surrounding units.

Biller said the resident’s daughter, Lord, was visiting her mother when the fire occurred. He said the fire appeared to have started from an “improperly extinguished cigarette in the living room,” though the investigation isn’t complete.

According to Biller, Central Whidbey firefighters were kept very busy lately. Beside the Cambey fire, firefighters responded to a major house fire in Greenbank Sunday afternoon, during which they received several other calls. In one case, a kid fell off a go-kart. Then early Monday morning they were called to an over fire on Coveland.

“It made for a long weekend,” he said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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