CHARLESTOWN — The Clark County coroner has identified the person who died in an early morning apartment fire in Charlestown as 57-year-old Jill Whitlatch. Three other families are displaced.
Emergency officials say the fire started around 5 a.m. at Windsor II Apartments in the 300 block of Maple Drive. Andre Heal, assistant chief for the Charlestown Fire Department, said when crews got to the scene, heavy fire and smoke were coming out of one side of an apartment building, which holds four units.
Three families were evacuated from the building, partly due to neighbors and first responders knocking on doors and yelling to wake them up at the early morning hour. Firefighters did a search of each of the four units; in one, they found a woman who had succumbed to the fire, later identified as Whitlatch.
In the left side of the building where the fire occurred, one apartment was damaged to a charred frame, thick soot covering the ground, a front door melted and twisted lying in the front yard. Just next to that, resident Cheri Murphy escaped with her life.
"I just heard a beating at the door and I thought it was a dream," she said, "So I lay there for a minute and they kept beating and beating, I jumped up and ran to the door and said 'who is this' and they kept saying 'get out of the house; it's on fire.'"
As the fire crews cleared out later in the morning, Murphy kept warm in a neighbor's apartment — in disbelief about what was happening. The American Red Cross has given her and the other displaced families vouchers for a place to stay and some other items, and the local trustee's office will be handling whatever else is needed.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet, but...I saw. It's pretty much a mess," Murphy said. "The whole house is tore up, even the bedrooms. I have a brand new pot of chili in the refrigerator I just made."
Just before noon, a bright spot of hope shone through when a woman ran up to say she had seen Murphy's cat, Stripie, emerge from a hiding place within the house before disappearing again. She said the cat appeared to be unharmed, and Murphy and others worked to coax her out. They weren't certain if she might have run into the woods after the sighting; a city employee wasn't able to locate her during a walk-through of the house. But Murphy is so happy her cat survived the fire, and hopes she'll return as soon as she calms down.
"It's an extra blessing," Murphy said. "She was scared to death when they were beating on the door. She probably freaked like I did. I didn't have time to do [anything.]"
The Indiana State Fire Marshal, Charlestown Fire and Police Departments are investigating the cause of the fire; foul play is not suspected.
Charlestown Police Chief Keith McDonald said the department's thoughts are with Whitlatch's loved ones and everyone affected by the fire.
"We're saddened by the tragic loss, especially right here toward the end of the year and the holidays," McDonald said. "Our hearts certainly go out to the family members that are affected by this and the other tenants that are affected by it.
"We just hope that the investigators can find a cause and get them some sort of closure."
Assistant fire chief Heal reminds people to take extra precautions in winter, especially with heaters.
"Use precaution as winter approaches, make sure your furnace is in order, wood burning stove is on order, checked by professionals," he said. "Clocks go back this weekend, great time to change your smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector."