PARIS, Texas – A table piled with donated clothes is being eyed as the potential origin of a fire that killed five people at a Texas homeless shelter, forcing some residents to flee into the cold streets barefoot and coatless.
Fire officials said it was the deadliest fire in 30 years in recent memory in Paris, a town of about 26,000 people about 100 miles northeast of Dallas.
"It went fast," said Roger Riemer, 49, who has lived at the shelter since September. "There was quite a few people trying to get it out, but it didn't work. It was just getting too hot. Smoke was billowing out of there so bad. There was nothing we could do."
Riemer and other shelter residents, huddling outside a makeshift shelter across the street, said they saw flames and felt intense heat coming off the table full of donated clothes just before 3 a.m. Monday. Paris Fire Marshal Dale Maberry said the table was being investigated as a possible "area of origin."
The shelter, a converted bakery, was run by the nonprofit Seed Sowers Christians in Action. The fire didn't spread to most of the aging brick warehouse-like building, but a chunk of roof collapsed and left a gaping hole. Underneath, some Christmas garland lay atop the rubble.
Paris Fire Chief Ronnie Grooms said he wasn't immediately aware if the building, which did not have a sprinkler system, had been cited for code violations. With so much donated clothes and furniture in the building, Grooms said "a lot of that would be considered a fire hazard."
Grooms said arson was not suspected.
The names of the victims, some of whom were left almost unidentifiable to investigators, were not immediately released. Their bodies were sent to Dallas late Monday for autopsies and positive identification, according to Lamar County Justice of the Peace Ernie Sparks.
All five who died were on the second floor. There were 28 men at the 42-bed shelter — where men stayed in 10-by-10 rooms — when the fire broke out, said Don Walker, the shelter's founder.
"It's just really a tragedy. It's just some homeless guys that really cared about me and I cared about them," Walker said.
The Seed Sowers group recycles cardboard and newspapers at the site to pay for the shelter and soup kitchen, but Walker said the fire didn't spread to the area where recyclables were being sorted.
"We're just in shock over the men dying that way," said Lee Jordan, the wife of Rev. Billy Jordan, a retired preacher who serves on the group's board of directors.
The shelter was among the few homeless resources in Paris, said Bradley Scott, an executive director with the Red Cross in the area. The homeless who escaped were put up in a temporary church shelter across the street; Scott said he was still looking for a longer-term solution.
"We'll find them a place," he said. "They won't be sent out on the street."