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A Texas apartment building burned while firefighters scrambled for water.


SAN ANTONIO — A 32-unit apartment complex near San Antonio burned down on Thursday night into Friday morning as fire hydrants ran dry after a winter storm that disrupted the water supply for millions of Texans.

Firefighters were instead forced to rely on water from a nearby stream, which tanker trunks delivered via tight, icy roads. Those trucks filled up a containment pool at the apartment complex, but it could supply water for only a couple of minutes at a time.

“When we opened the hydrant it was just air,” Chief Jerry Bialick of the Bexar-Bulverde Volunteer Fire Department said.

For hours, 125 firefighters from 16 departments battled the flames, which threatened two neighboring apartment buildings. On Thursday, residents stood in the cold and watched as their homes were consumed. On Friday, some tenants returned to survey the smoldering rubble.

About 130 people lost their homes.

“The firefighters were hitting the fire the best they could, but they were running out of water,” said Steve Henshaw, 48, who lived in the building with his wife and said they had not had water since Monday.

Mike Brinkmann, the vice president for distribution and collections with the San Antonio Water System, said an extended power outage, combined with frigid temperatures, meant the utility was unable to pump water to a storage tank that feeds the apartment complex.

Under normal power outages, which can linger for a day or two, the tank holds enough water to last until the power returns, but this week’s abnormally long outage emptied the tank. Mr. Brinkmann also said any water left in the apartment sprinkler system was probably frozen because of insufficient insulation on the pipes.

Residents said they smelled something burning shortly after noon on Thursday. As firefighters arrived, a witness said they discovered that the heating element inside a water heater was firing without water in the system.

About two hours later, the apartment management company sent a text message asking residents to turn off the breakers to their water heaters. Soon after the email was sent, firefighters discovered smoke rising between a bathtub and a wall.

Chief Bialick said the cause of the fire remained unknown, but the blaze quickly spread.

The inability to get water from the hydrants “was literally like going into a boxing ring with one and a half hands tied behind your back,” said Ken Jarvis, a public information officer for the Fire Department.

Mr. Henshaw and his wife, Joann Henshaw, escaped with their laptops. But Ms. Henshaw, teary-eyed, said she left her wedding ring on the counter. Mr. Henshaw, whose 73-year-old mother lived in a different apartment in the building, said he lost precious items from his time in the Air Force.

“Texas wasn’t prepared for the winter storm,” Ms. Henshaw, 49, said. “It froze our pipes. That’s what ultimately led to the fire. It’s really sad.”

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