Burned out, but not forgotten 

Suit offers victims some hope, but Castle West fire still is a nightmare

Castle Wests remnants have been cleared, but the empty - lot still triggers painful memories for some. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Castle Wests remnants have been cleared, but the empty lot still triggers painful memories for some.

There was sometimes broken glass in the hallways, and cases for the building's fire extinguishers were often used as ashtrays, but Jasmine Vegas still has fond memories from Castle West Apartments.

She lived on the building's third floor with her parents and her 4-year-old nephew. Her mom had used a small inheritance to spruce things up with new furniture, and the apartment was filled with the items, clothes and keepsakes that made it a home.

Then the 135-unit complex burned on Jan. 16, 2007, killing two and leaving Vegas, her family and hundreds of others homeless.

Police say Derrick "Nicky" Johnson, now awaiting trial on murder charges, spread gasoline in ground floor hallways in the early morning before igniting an inferno that sent residents leaping from third-floor balconies. Asbestos released in the firefighting effort then turned the building into a hazmat site, consigning most possessions to a landfill.

The building was leveled months later, and the lot now sits empty. But Vegas says passing the site still brings back painful images from the night of the fire.

"I remember it like it was just yesterday," she says.

Since then, Vegas has changed jobs multiple times, watched her parents separate and gotten married herself; the fire, however, has cast a pall over everything. She'd planned once to go back to school and take college classes, but now she says that goal is out of reach as she works 12-hour shifts at a car wash.

"I'm living in a bad depression world and I can't get turned around," she says. "I can't get [the fire] out of my mind."

Some residents are finding some hope in a lawsuit filed in January alleging the building's owners and managers were negligent, among other things, by not keeping the building secure and failing to tell residents about asbestos inside. Of the hundreds who lived at Castle West, about 90 residents and their children are now part of the suit, says attorney Ken Jaray, of the Law Firm of Jaray & Webster.

Vegas has not thought much about the suit, which might not go to trial for years. She says she hasn't had time to speak with attorneys about it, and she's also conflicted about whether to seek help in getting her life back together.

Rudell Davis shares her daughter's concerns. Despite being involved in the suit, she expresses little hope it will put her family back on the comfortable track it was on.

"It has been hell" since the fire, she says, describing a depression so severe that she's sometimes thought it would have been easier to have died.

Davis now lives in Mississippi, and the rift that opened in her 28-year marriage seems to be healing. But despite a dozen visits to Social Security offices, husband Jay Davis still has not managed to get his Social Security card replaced.

Life was good before the fire, Rudell Davis says. Her grandson Cornell was a happy 4-year-old. Davis' voice is thick with emotion as she remembers a recent day when Cornell, now 6, commented as she poured him a bubble bath that it was "like the old days" back in Castle West.

She says she doesn't know if the old days will ever come back. The lawsuit, at least, could send a message.

"I don't care if we win or not," she says. "We've just got to learn to take care of our own."



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