A fire destroyed an 113-year-old downtown Portland apartment building and caused a temporary shutdown of I-405 Tuesday, May 16.

When Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) crews responded to the May Apartments at Southwest Taylor and 14th Avenue shortly after 10:30 am, flames were pouring out windows.

Firefighters reported residents were trapped on multiple fire escapes of the 60-unit building in Goose Hollow. Fire crews assisted residents and their pets down fire escapes and ladders, as plumes of smoke blanketed the neighborhood and nearby freeway, shutting down traffic in both directions for at least two hours.

It’s unclear how many residents were displaced, but PF&R noted firefighters roamed each floor of the complex and determined no one else was inside before they cleared the building, fearing it would collapse. 

Apartment residents were offered an air-conditioned TriMet bus to keep cool Tuesday, before the Red Cross organized a temporary shelter at the University of Portland campus. A mutual aid group dubbed “Team Farmer” also delivered 45 pizzas for displaced residents, the fire bureau noted.

The cause of the fire, which garnered 125 fire personnel from multiple stations and agencies, is still under investigation.

According to PF&R, the fire started on the third floor of the unreinforced brick building, then quickly spread to the fourth floor. 

“Fire activity continued to grow with explosive flashover conditions blowing windows out of the 4th story …with shards of glass landing on the other side of the four-lane street,” PF&R noted in a news release late Tuesday evening. 

Firefighters scale fire escapes at the May Apartments. Portland Fire and Rescue

One firefighter sustained forehead lacerations from falling shards of glass and another was hospitalized with “elevated blood pressure,” but fire crews believe everyone made it out of the building safely. 

Nearby Lincoln High School was choked out by smoke and the school allowed students to be picked up early. 

Residents ignored alarms

As newly constructed apartment complexes now crowd the Portland landscape, the May Apartments stood out. Rental listings for the units boast “vintage” features like original hardwood floors, clawfoot tubs and century-old moulding on the walls. 

But the building’s old-Portland charm came with quirks. 

Firefighters noted smoke alarms were intact and engaged when they arrived, but many residents ignored the alarms, noting they were prone to being triggered frequently and residents had grown weary of “false alarms.”

“Crews went floor by floor alerting the residents that this was not a false alarm and encouraged them to exit the building immediately,” PF&R noted.

Firefighters battle blaze with ‘pen and paper’

As fire crews battled the four-alarm blaze, they did so with no working computer dispatch system.

“It should be noted that our dispatch center was undergoing repairs and modification to our Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system so all the management of this fire was done with pen and paper,” a PF&R spokesperson noted in the agency’s recap. Bureau of Emergency Communications dispatch supervisors and fire liaison officers helped direct multiple fire companies around the city, while neighboring fire agencies from outside the city were asked to help cover fires elsewhere in the city. 

To complicate matters, continued water blasts caused the building’s basement to flood, spewing oil and diesel from fuel tanks used by the May’s furnace. Firefighters said they were able to divert the combined water and petroleum away from storm drains and alert the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services.

Firefighters helped residents and pets escape the burning building.
The May Apartments at Southwest Taylor and 14th Avenue were destroyed by fire May 16. Portland Fire & Rescue

Portland Fire Chief Sara Boone commended the combined 125 fire personnel who assisted on scene and neighboring agencies who stepped in to help cover while PF&R crews worked to knock out the blaze downtown.

“I want to recognize and acknowledge the efforts and heroism displayed by the men and women of Portland Fire under the most hazardous of conditions today. Because of their training, decision making, and actions on the fireground, lives were saved,” Boone stated.

This story has been corrected to note that Lincoln High School students were not released early, but allowed to be picked up early.