Couple loses everything in fire except what they 'really care about'

Eric and Whitney Warner stand in front of their burned-out apartment. - Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter
Eric and Whitney Warner stand in front of their burned-out apartment.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter

Whitney Warner was busy last Saturday, getting ready for her baby shower friends were putting on later in the day.

As she stood in her kitchen fixing a salad, something just didn’t smell right. Something was wrong. The smell got worse.

It was about 1:40 p.m.

Eric, her husband, went outside to check.

“When he didn’t come back inside to say that everything was OK, I knew something wasn’t quite right, so I came out and got hit by a wall of smoke,” Whitney Warner said.

That “wall of smoke” was from a wind-driven fire that was quickly engulfing three buildings of the Regency Woods apartment complex just off old Benson Road and would eventually displace 39 residents.

When Eric stepped through the front door of his second-story apartment, dust blew into his face – at least he thought it was dust, blown by the wind.

He walked down the stairs and out into the yard. A puff of black smoke furled around the corner of the building next to his. His step quickened.

There were flames, about two feet tall. He looked at a fire extinguisher and then back again. The flames had doubled in size.

“I realized I am not putting this thing out,” he said. He called 911. “At that moment I knew our place was going to be gone.”

The roof of the three-story building was in flames in just six or seven minutes, he estimates.

The first of numerous 911 calls was received at 1:46 p.m.

The fire call was dispatched at 1:47 p.m. and a minute later crews from Renton’s Station 11 downtown and Station 13 on the Benson Highway were en route. Both stations are about equal distance away.

At 1:54 p.m. Renton firefighters arrived at Regency Woods. They were soon joined by fire crews from a three-county area to fight the four-alarm fire – and keep it from spreading deeper into the 359-unit apartment complex.

Already under way was a heart-pounding effort – sometimes heroic – to get residents and their pets to safety.

Hit with the smoke, Whitney knew it was time to get everyone out of apartment, including parents and the couple’s two dogs, Bailey and Buster. There was no time to save anything else.

“I never thought that would be the last time I would be walking out of my house,” she said Monday.

They headed straight for the parking lot but constantly moved to get away from the smoke that would come at them from different directions as the wind shifted. Eventually, they were forced across a field to another parking lot.

“The heat coming off that fire was very intense,” Whitney said.

Eric ran back up the stairs to the apartment to get the car cars. He moved vehicles and helped get people to safety.

He could see his brother on the ground at the three-story building, catching a dog that somebody was throwing out the second floor. The man then jumped out.

“It was pretty intense,” Eric said.

He saw a girl run from her apartment with a towel, wallet, phone and her underwear. That was a narrow escape, he said.

Another resident told him he opened a window and saw black smoke. He ran out; all he had were the clothes he had been sleeping in. There was no time to grab his wallet or keys.

“We were lucky. We had a minute or two more,” Eric said.

The Warners, like others from the complex, are homeless, with nothing saved from inside their home. They went to the baby shower, “a great distraction,” Whitney said.

But Sunday morning was “very emotional,” she said. “It had finally sunk in. This was not a sleepover.” They are staying with the friends who gave the baby shower.

Liam, their first child, is due in September.

The Warners are grateful for the support of family and friends – and strangers. And overwhelmed; Eric hasn’t had time to return all the phone calls.

What they lost, Whitney said “were only items.”

“We are living. We are breathing. I am in good health. Husband is in good health. Our dogs are in good health,” she said. “We all walked away.”

Eric accumulated a lot of “toys” before his bachelorhood ended at 31. He lost them all and is starting over. But that’s OK.

“Everything that I really care about is still here,” he said.

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