Displaced tenants shaken, mourning loss of Olivia, Minn., fire victim

OLIVIA -- One day after an apartment fire took the life of their longtime neighbor and fellow tenant, residents of the Westcourt Apartments in Olivia remained shaken by the fire and loss.Billy Eugene Camper, 64, of Olivia, was identified Friday a...

John Anderson, 27, discovered the fire and pulled the building’s main fire alarm, alerting residents to evacuate. He made attempts to enter the victim’s apartment, but thick smoke and heat prevented him from doing so, he said. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA - One day after an apartment fire took the life of their longtime neighbor and fellow tenant, residents of the Westcourt Apartments in Olivia remained shaken by the fire and loss.
Billy Eugene Camper, 64, of Olivia, was identified Friday afternoon as the victim found deceased in his first-floor apartment shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday.
The cause of his death is pending the receipt of final laboratory results from the Midwest Medical Examiner’s office in Anoka County, according to Olivia Police Chief Derek Lee.
The state fire marshal was at the scene Friday to determine the cause of the fire, which was confined to the victim’s first-floor apartment. The investigation remains active, although authorities at the scene on Friday said there was no information that would lead them to believe the cause was suspicious.  
Tenants described Camper as a disabled man who was well-liked. He was a longtime resident and most people living in the three-building apartment complex on the west side of Olivia knew him, according to Jeffrey Smith, who lives in an apartment two doors down from Camper’s.
He said people in his apartment building “looked out for one another,’’ and the loss of Camper will be hard-felt.
“It breaks your heart,’’ said Heidi Schaefer, a tenant in a separate Westcourt building who was among those who knew Camper.  
The fire temporarily displaced 15 residents from the 16-unit building where the fire was discovered, according to Police Chief Lee. The Red Cross arranged for temporary housing in a local motel for some, but the majority found places to stay with family or friends, he said.
Everyone else escaped the building unharmed, including a mother with an infant in a second-floor apartment. Residents said she had initially attempted to go down a stairway that was thick with smoke, but retreated and exited on the other side of the building.
John Anderson, 27, of Minneapolis, said he discovered the fire, pulled the building’s central fire alarm to alert tenants, and yelled at those poking their heads out of their doors to call 911. He said he then made possibly five attempts to enter Camper’s apartment in hopes of rescuing him.
“I couldn’t make it past five feet,’’ said Anderson. Still visibly shaken one day later, Anderson said the intense smoke and heat made the apartment impenetrable. He attempted to enter with a flashlight and one time on his knees, but could not.
He had called Camper’s name several times, but had not heard a response, he said.
“Definitely never experienced anything like that. Hopefully, won’t ever have to again,’’ he said.
Anderson was a visitor to the apartments, staying with Jeffrey Smith. He said he had stayed up late to text a new friend and decided to take the garbage out around 7 a.m. He walked by Camper’s apartment without noticing smoke, returned and brought a second bag out. On his way back, he saw the smoke coming from the apartment.
The call for help reached the Olivia firefighters at 7:09 a.m., Chief Lee said.
The firefighters conducted a room-to-room search, but the other tenants had all safely evacuated, said Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Thompson.
Firefighters found thick smoke from an oxygen-starved fire in the living area of the victim’s apartment, according to the assistant chief. Some contents in the apartment were burning. Firefighters quickly doused the blaze with water and found the victim deceased.
Olivia firefighters, police and Renville County sheriff’s officers at the scene assisted tenants, who were initially transported by bus to Bethel Lutheran Church in Olivia. Tenants were able to return to their apartments afterward to retrieve items.
Some residents could move back into their apartments in the building this weekend, according to Ron Sellnow, vice president with Pembco Real Estate of Edina, which manages the complex. Sellnow said the company hopes to have all of the displaced tenants back in their apartments by early next week.

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